Articles By Athlon Sports
If you ask Carlos Rodriguez why there are more Cuban players entering the major leagues than ever before, his answer is quick, humorous and right on time.
“There are 68 million reasons,” he says.
Rodriguez, Tampa Bay’s director of Latin American scouting, is referring to the six-year, $68 million contract the White Sox bestowed in late October upon first baseman Jose Abreu. It was the largest deal in club history, and it serves as the latest example of how eager MLB clubs are to collect the talent on the island that sits 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
The Sox hope Abreu joins the collection of recent defectors who have made significant contributions to major-league teams in the past couple years. Aroldis Chapman and his 100-mph fastball have transformed the Reds’ bullpen. Yoenis Cespedes is a power-hitting fixture in the middle of the Oakland lineup. And who can forget the performance last year of Yasiel Puig, who energized the Dodgers with his power, aggressiveness and flamboyant personality? Those three aren’t the only Cuban players in the bigs right now. In fact, Abreu joins Alexei Ramirez and Dayan Viciedo on the White Sox roster. But his arrival in the United States demonstrates just how much teams covet players from Cuba and how those performers want to find a way to reach the U.S. to play ball at the highest level.
“When there is an economic incentive and an opportunity cost of not coming over, the risk-reward is higher,” Rodriguez says. “People are finding more creative ways of getting out, and there is a bigger network of people helping out.”
For decades, Cuban players have made significant contributions to MLB teams, dating back to Minnie Minoso from 1949-63 (and a couple P.R. stunt appearances later on) but also including Tony Perez, Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva. Because of dictator Fidel Castro’s edict that no one could leave the island without permission, many great players — particularly in the 1970s and ‘80s — never reached the majors. Two of the most famous are Omar Linares and German Mesa, who were considered All-Star quality talents who couldn’t escape Castro’s clutches.
There was always something of a mythical status accorded the Cuban player, who could be viewed during certain international competitions but rarely seen in his natural habitat. Because of that legend, Cuban players might be held in higher esteem than their counterparts from other Latin American countries.
That has helped MLB teams develop considerable affection for players from the island — and vice versa. Last summer, even the Phillies, for whom big-money foreign players have been anathema, signed pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a six-year, $50 million deal. Although the money figure has dropped due to Gonzalez’s injury problems, the Phillies expect the righty to be a part of their rotation in 2014. With each subsequent player, the money seems to grow. Chapman received $30.25 million from the Reds. The A’s bestowed $36 mil on Cespedes, and Puig’s contract is worth $42 million. After never giving an international player a contract of more than $2 million, the Phillies went all in for Gonzalez. A couple months later, Abreu’s deal rocked the majors.
“Any time Cuban players made it to the U.S. as veterans from their professional league, there was always an interest in signing them,” Cardinals assistant GM Michael Girsch says. “It was a trickle in previous years, but now it has opened up, and we’re signing them.”
The flow could increase considerably in coming years, thanks to a variety of factors. One is the growing number of people trying to broker deals to sneak ballplayers off the island to safe nations. These “brokers” (some call them smugglers; others refer to them as traffickers) hold onto the men until agents sign deals to represent the players and bring them to the U.S., where they can be evaluated. The brokers make money, and there may even be some funds heading back to Cuban officials who conveniently look elsewhere as players are leaving the island.
“Are they letting it happen?” asks Cincinnati senior director of scouting Chris Buckley. “Maybe some money is going back to the Cuban government. We’ve heard all types of things. It’s a little suspicious.”
In order to make that cash flow more official, Cuba announced in late September that it would allow players to sign with other countries’ professional leagues. That was strictly prohibited under Fidel Castro, but his brother Raul, has a different view of the impact of big-dollar contracts on the socialist experience, especially if some of that dough makes its way to Havana. There are some issues to be worked out with the U.S. regarding tax dollars’ flowing back to Cuba, a transaction that would be in violation of America’s strict ban on commercial dealings with Cuba. That is something of a technicality, and it would be surprising if some system weren’t created to overcome the issue.
“People are trying to get a piece of the pie,” Rodriguez says. “Before, maybe the money wasn’t as big an incentive.”
Anybody who watched Puig play during the 2013 season shouldn’t have been surprised at all by his hard-driving style. That’s how they play ball in Cuba. “The Cuban players are traditionally known as ultra-aggressive and playing very hard,” Rodriguez says. “They are intimidating and brash and play an alpha style of baseball. They are definitely very brash and confident. They feel that if they can compete in Cuba, they can play anywhere in the world.”
The young outfielder tried to stretch singles into doubles, went after every fly ball with abandon and could be fooled — sometimes badly — by off-speed pitches. It didn’t matter to Puig if he failed; he was going to keep moving forward at 100 mph, sliding into home after a walk-off dinger and refusing to acknowledge the accomplishments of those who went before him, as Puig did when he snubbed former Diamondbacks great Luis Gonzalez.
There’s an old saying that explains why Dominican players are such free swingers: “You don’t walk off the island.” In other words, playing small ball isn’t going to get you noticed. That’s no different in Cuba, even though it’s tougher to get off that island than it is to reach the majors from the D.R.
When Cuba competes in international competitions, it does so to win. That’s a by-product of Castro’s desire to prove to the world that his country’s socialism produces greatness, the old Soviet-style system of rewards for performance and a bunker mentality of sorts that comes from being isolated from much of the world.
“The Cuban hitters go up there swinging,” Buckley says. “The pitchers are very aggressive and have no problems throwing at a hitter. Of course, let’s see how that translates to big-league play.”
Before that can be considered, the player has to become eligible to play. First, he has to escape the island and the close scrutiny of the government. The breakaways aren’t quite as dramatic as they once were, but it still isn’t easy. Recruiters and other intermediaries bring players to other countries, usually Mexico or a Caribbean land, to establish residency. And there are always concerns among those who leave about how family members who remain in Cuba will be treated. The next step is obtaining clearance from the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control. Because the U.S. has an embargo in place against Cuba, the defecting players are almost looked at as “products” of the island. The OFAC — a Division of the Department of the Treasury — “…administers and enforces economic and trade sanctions based on U.S. foreign policy and national security goals against targeted foreign countries and regimes...” It isn’t a particularly onerous process, but it does take some time. The final hurdle is say-so from Major League Baseball. Once all of that is taken care of, it’s time to find out if the guy can play.
“When they are cleared, we can evaluate them in a more controlled setting,” Rodriguez says. “We can see them take batting practice and do other things.”
Those assessments are vital with Cuban players. Yes, they fare well in international competition. And the stars stand out in domestic leagues, too. Making the jump to the majors isn’t as easy as getting from the island to the United States. After all the wrangling that goes into defecting and getting signed, there is the small issue of whether the player in question is any good. It may be beneficial to stage formal workouts for the prospects, but determining whether they can play still requires some faith, rather than an analysis of considerable amounts of data. No matter how highly touted the level of competition in the Cuban leagues might be, it still isn’t close to big-league quality.
“Some of the pitching there is at the high (class) A ball or Double-A levels,” Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin says. “Only occasionally do they run into quality pitching.
“We talk about how hitting is down in the major leagues because there are so many pitchers with power arms. The players coming over here from Cuba and Japan are in for rude awakenings, because they will be seeing quality pitching every day. It’s a big adjustment. Players like Puig and Cespedes are very talented guys, but you have to be careful.”
The good thing about acquiring a Cuban player is that the relative cost is low. Those who saw the contract the White Sox gave to Abreu might laugh at that statement, but it’s true. Yes, the money can be high, but there are no other penalties. Teams don’t lose draft picks for signing Cuban players. And they don’t have to surrender top prospects as they do when making deadline trades. So, there is nothing on top of the contracts — which can be admittedly high — when it comes to importing Cuban talent. For instance, when the Reds acquired pitcher Mat Latos from the Padres after the 2011 season, they had to part with righty Edinson Volquez and three top minor leaguers. “That’s a high cost,” Buckley says. Chapman’s six-year, $30.25 million contract wasn’t cheap, but that was the flamethrower’s only price.
“When you sign someone like Chapman, it’s just money, a lot of money, but we’re in the business of evaluating talent,” Buckley says. “We should be able to tell.”
When a player makes it through the clearinghouse process, is deemed talented enough to warrant a major-league contract and actually proves he can play, there is still one final component that can make the transition from Cuba to MLB daunting. Because the island is so backward, the U.S. lifestyle can be a huge shock. Just walking into a supermarket can be a transformative experience.
Putting these naïve players into a professional setting, with all of the outside influences and media attention, can create some serious problems.
“They have to learn the laws and our way of life,” Rodriguez says. “You have to have people monitoring what they do 24/7. Most of the players who come over here never drove a car before. It’s a real adjustment period.
“They have to learn everything — how to deal with fans and media and even how to order food.”
That they can learn. Skills like throwing 100-mph cheese and hitting for power and average aren’t so easily acquired.
And are worth the price.
—Written by Michael Bradley for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!
The locker room is a sacred place. It is also an extremely fragile place.
The smallest change in attitude or perception can cause one to implode or splinter in the worst possible way. Critical injuries, lack of leadership from the coaching staff or a nosey, overbearing owner are a few reasons why the delicate pursuit of a championship can be derailed. Other times, the locker room can be infested with teammates who clearly aren't committed to winning. It can rub off on others, can be a distraction in the media and is obviously a terrible way to represent yourself in your community to so many who look up to those in pro sports. Sometimes — most times — these athletes have so much talent that they continually are given chances to succeed. It generally leaves fans wondering what if?
Here are some of the most parasitic and dangerous teammates of all-time:
Ryan Leaf, QB, NFL
The torrid and tawdry tale of the San Diego Chargers' first-round pick in the 1998 NFL Draft is well documented. His off-the-field drug issues as a coach alone make him one of the most tragic members of any locker room in all of sports. Yet, simply as an NFL quarterback, Leaf failed to live up to his 6-foot-5 frame. He was in yelling matches that nearly developed into physical altercations with teammates, general managers, fans during practice and one famous reporter who should have "knock(ed) it off." The list of bizarre and ignorant decision-making is shocking. He skipped the final day of the rookie symposium. He complained to the front office about a standard rookie credit card prank. He constantly blamed teammates publicly for his poor play. He missed practice with an injury to play golf. He refused to have surgery when doctors told him he should. There is a reason he won only four of his 21 career starts.
Tonya Harding, Figure Skater
Aside from never being able to get to the arena or onto the ice on time, I'm not sure it gets any worse than physically assaulting your teammate with the direct intent of ending their career. On Jan. 6, 1994, Harding conspired with ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly, and her bodyguard, Shawn Eckhardt, to break teammate and competitor Nancy Kerrigan's right leg. They hired a man named Shane Stant to assault Kerrigan at Cobo Arena in Detroit, causing Kerrigan to withdraw from the 1994 US Championships. The attack didn't keep Kerrigan from competing in the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer where she won the silver medal. Harding would end up pleading guilty to conspiracy.
Latrell Sprewell, Guard, NBA
Few players have wasted more talent on nonsense than Sprewell. Not many players can say they have literally choked their head coach. His excuse? "It's not like he was losing air or anything." Spree's laundry list of locker room dust-ups is too long to comb through. But choking your coach and publicly wondering how he was going to feed his family on a $21 million contract is enough to make this list.
Richie Incognito, OL, NFL
Spitting on players, fighting in games, fighting during practice and in bars all dot his resume. And that was just before he transferred from Nebraska to Oregon in college. Repeated incidents in the NFL have led to Incognito playing for three different teams, each ending with a bang. The latest, of course, coming in the Miami Dolphins' locker room involving supposed friend Jonathan Martin. He is widely regarded as one of, if not the, dirtiest player in the NFL.
Manny Ramirez, OF, MLB
No one makes you shake your head quite like Man-Ram. Yes, he has had physical altercations with teammates and even apparently knocked over an elderly secretary. He was an extraordinary hitter and one of the most bizarre outfielders in the history of the game. Cutting off throws, disappearing into the Green Monster and landing on the baseball only scratch the surface. He was also suspended for using steroids while playing for the Dodgers late in his career. But Manny is also guilty of the worst crime in all of sports: intentionally not playing hard. Manny Being Manny was great for a laugh — if you didn't play with him.
John Terry, Centre Back, English Premier Soccer
One of the most decorated English soccer plays of all-time, Terry won "Dad of the Year" in 2009. The voters must not have known about his bar fights, airport altercations, handicap parking tendencies and general sleaziness. He has been investigated for racial abuse and was busted for having an extramarital affair with a teammate’s significant other. Well done, sire.
Carlos Zambrano, SP, MLB
He was suspended for arguing with teammate Derrek Lee. He got in a fight between innings with catcher Michael Barrett. His temper and childish behaviors were caught on film numerous times on the North Side of Chicago. Why do you think new management was willing to pay millions for him NOT to be in their clubhouse? In recent news, he had to apologize for starting a brawl in the Venezuela's winter series final.
Bill Romanowski, LB, NFL
The burly and physical tackler was a menace on the field as one of the nastiest hitters in the game and off the field as one of the worst teammates. During his playing days, he was linked to potential steroid use that likely led somewhat to his insane practice habits. No less than six major violent incidents with teammates dot Romanowski's resume. He shattered Marcus Williams' eye-socket, ending his career, broke Kerry Collins' jaw and attacked Tony Gonzalez. He kicked another teammate in the head, spit in another's face and was known to aim for an extra-sensitive area of the body with the football from time to time. Now several years removed from the game, Romanowski has since toned down his antics dramatically and has been slowly working to rebuild his image off of the field.
Barry Bonds, OF, MLB
Possibly the most talented and most high profile player on this list, it seems awfully appropriate that the seven-time MVP never won a World Series. The stories from teammates, fans and reporters stretch out longer than one of his bombs into the Bay. Not showing up for team photos, blaming teammates for failed drug tests, berating journalists, distracting the team and constantly distancing himself from his team. There is a report from Rob Dibble that Pirates players would offer steak dinners and cash to opposing pitchers if they would hit Bonds. He was hit 106 times in his career and, for the most part, his home run record is sneered at for a reason.
Delonte West, G, NBA
This one isn't too hard. Over a three-year period, West was traded three times and eventually waived by the Minnesota Timberwolves. His career began unceremoniously when officers found a concealed handgun in his pocket and, I can't make this up, a shotgun in a guitar case on his back during a speedy stop — while on a motorcycle. In 2010, he got into a locker room fight with Von Wafer, one that witnesses say West instigated. In 2012, he wasn't allowed to attend the Mavericks' trip to the White House and he reacted with an intense Twitter rant. Finally, and even I will admit, the most far-fetched tale involving West is of his alleged indiscretions with The Chosen One's Mom. No, I am not kidding. He never averaged more than 12.2 points per game in any season and averaged in double figures only three times in eight years in the NBA.
Terrell Owens, WR, NFL
Constantly throwing teammates under the bus, Owens' selfish attitude on and off the field cost his locker room any cohesion and, at times, cost his team yards on the field. Effort was never his issue like some other prima donna wideouts in the NFL, but to blame quarterbacks and coaches for his own failures is absurd. And to infer certain things about Jeff Garcia in a negative way is unacceptable, distasteful and classless. Especially, coming from a guy as vain as T.O.
Gilbert Arenas, G, NBA
He has long been known to berate and verbally abuse teammates. He has also been connected with some of the more vicious rookie hazings. However, being suspended for nearly an entire season because you brought a handgun into the locker room takes the cake. Which is unacceptable, especially if you are a career 42.1 percent shooter.
Steve Smith, WR, NFL (Carolina)
Multiple fights with multiple teammates during training camps have made Smith a constant headline even before the season gets started. He has been sued, fined, suspended and sent to anger management training for the better part of a decade. It’s not working. He has long been one of the most talkative — and generally not using pleasantries — players in all of the NFL.
Jeff Kent, 2B, MLB
Few players have ever been as abrasive as Mr. Kent. Stories of Barry Bonds — yes, Barry Bonds — having to play the role of peacekeeper in the Giants' clubhouse should tell you all you need to know about Kent. Teammates, media, coaches and fans can't stand to be around him. Neither could the people on "Survivor" apparently.
The "Worst" of the Rest:
Albert Haynesworth, Defensive Lineman, NFL
A paycheck player who refused to play certain positions and never stayed in shape following his payday.
Keyshawn Johnson, Wide Receiver, NFL
Was always wondering why the Jets were throwing the ball "to that little white guy." Hmmm...
Stephon Marbury, Guard, NBA
Constantly battling with teammates and even his GM, he single-handedly derailed the Knicks.
Allen Iverson, Guard, NBA
Game effort was never the issue. His Diva persona and attitude towards practice was.
Joe Horn, Wide Receiver, NFL
On the field antics and sleeping with a teammate's wife qualifies Horn for this list.
JaMarcus Russell, Quarterback, NFL
Lazy, out of shape and unfocused in regards to anything that had to do with winning games.
Milton Bradley, Outfielder, MLB
Eight teams in 12 years for the short-tempered maniac. Also has had multiple domestic abuse issues.
No one said that running the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine was easy. And from the labored looks on the faces of the athletes running it, it's true. Enjoy this image gallery of the football players trying to grunt one out at the combine.
Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel shares his thoughts about Tiger Woods' unprecedented approach to the game of golf.
It is a curious fact that, a hundred years from now, when golfers are discussing Tiger Woods the way we discuss Ben Hogan or Jack Nicklaustoday, they will have to talk about Tiger's swing by the year or vintage, the way one talks about great wines. Or perhaps the way we talk of ancient history using the preposition "circa" before the date. Because the Tiger Woods of 1997 was vastly different in form from the Tiger Woods of 2000, and different yet again in 2007, and different still today in 2014. Among his mind-blowing accomplishments, ascending to the number one spot in the world and dominating the world of professional golf with four completely different swings might be the most “in your face" feat ever achieved in sport.
Tiger may have been born to play golf, but it seems he was also born to build and destroy.
Michael Jordan worked harder than his peers to improve his form, but the mechanics he used to score over 3,000 points in the 1986-87 season looked essentially identical to those he used to hit a jumper with 5.2 seconds left to clinch the NBA Championship for the Bulls against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 Finals. Gordie Howe played professional hockey in five different decades, and in his 2,421st game, his style was just as recognizable as it was in his rookie season of 1946. Imagine if either of these athletes, after being colossally successful early in their careers, had completely changed the way they played their respective sports — not once, but four times, and after each change became the best again. It would just never happen, not once, let alone four times.
Young athletes, new to their sport, make changes to their form as they learn what works and what doesn't based upon coaching and trial and error, but once they have the mechanics down, their form, with few exceptions, is as recognizable as a fingerprint for the rest of their careers. Don’t get me wrong — athletes, especially golfers, are always tinkering, but once a modicum of success has been achieved, changes for the most part amount to refinements.
Exceptions, of course, are players who failed early in their careers and then went back and dismantled and rebuilt swings, only to come back famously different golfers, like Ben Hogan in the 1940s and, most recently and less famously, Matt Kuchar. None of this happened to Tiger Woods, who exploded onto the scene in 1996 and won The Masters by 12 shots in 1997 only to completely scrap that record-breaking swing. What he came back with two years later was the best swing in the history of golf.
Build and destroy.
In 2000 Tiger started history's most dominant, astonishing stretch of golf with a longer, wider, spot-on plane and more versatile swing. He won four professional majors in a row by as much as 15 shots and made 142 consecutive cuts. What is the purpose of pursuing a method in sport, except in hopes of becoming the best, the most consistent and the most dominating athlete of your era, if not of all time? Tiger did just that, and then, as if he was tired of driving a two-year-old car, he traded it in for a newer model.
Build and destroy.
By 2007, Tiger’s swing, flatter and narrower, looked nothing like his swing that won four majors in a row, but his scoring average of 67.79 was exactly the same as his scoring average of 2000, and so was his dominance, if not his ability to win by blowout margins.
Build and destroy.
Like Shakespeare, who created anew almost 2,000 words when other writers struggled even to use that many, Tiger is the most singular figure golf has ever known.
Still, it has been almost six years since he won a major, and that is the one thing he hasn’t done with his new swing and it is the one thing that matters most. At 38 years old, the man whose record Tiger is chasing, Jack Nicklaus, had won 14 majors, and in his 38th year he added an Open Championship at St. Andrews, a place where he had won before. Tiger is playing at three major venues this year where he has previously won, and there is every reason to think 2014 will be the year in which Tiger starts his major ascendancy again. The swing changes are done, and he’s too old to change again; all that’s left is to compete.
Build and destroy.
Golf Channel Analyst
This article appears in the 2014 edition of Athlon Sports' Golf Annual, on newsstands now. Order your copy today.
There’s a reason ESPN has become the sports goliath that it is today.
They were the first and best in the business to do what they do. It began on Sept. 6, 1979 with the original run of their signature nightly sportscast that kept fans informed about what was happening in sports. This well before the eruption of the Internet, blog-o-sphere, social media or niche television networks.
For those of us born in the early '80s (like myself), SportsCenter was as big a part of my childhood as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. I could follow my favorite teams, stories and personalities from all over the nation in one place. I could watch Knicks and Mets highlights every night whether I lived in Dallas, Atlanta or Austin. But what took SportsCenter from small cable network newscast to broadcasting behemoth was the creative, funny and unique personalities that, as Ron Burgundy would say, read the news. To quote one truly epic newscaster, “I don’t know how to put this, but, I’m kind of a big deal.”
With that in mind, from the viewer's perspective, here are the Top 25 SportsCenter anchors of all-time:
1. Dan Patrick (1989-06)
Not many jobs in any broadcasting field last for nearly 20 years and Patrick was the one of the best. Signature phrases "en fuego" (which actually started as "el fuego") and "The Whiff" helped grow the idea that SportsCenter was as much entertainment as it was news. He and his cohort Keith Olbermann should be largely credited with the initial growth of ESPN as the World Wide Leader. Others brought creativity and entertainment to sports broadcasting but Patrick and "KO" perfected the art and changed the way fans consume highlights forever. Not many sportscasters have 16 motion pictures and two national radio shows on their resume. Patrick has set the bar in the sports broadcasting industry.
2. Bob Ley (1979-present)
The classy stalwart has been with the network since its inception in 1979, making him one of (if not the) longest tenured ESPN employees in the building. Over the course of his prestigious career, Ley has claimed eight sports Emmys (Sports Journalism) and three Cable ACE awards (Sports Information Series) and has been the long-time host of the acclaimed investigative program Outside the Lines. He is credited with breaking the story of Pete Rose being banned from baseball.
3. Keith Olbermann (1992-97)
After a decade with CNN, Olbermann joined ESPN’s SportsCenter in 1992 quickly becoming a marquee personality. By 1995, he had won the Cable ACE award for Best Sportscaster. After things had soured internally at ESPN, and with an eye always toward the political spectrum, Olbermann left SportsCenter for MSNBC in 1997. He also worked for Fox Sports Net and NBC Nightly News. The cult-hit sitcom Sports Night, written by Aaron Sorkin, is based on Olbermann’s time spent with Patrick on the set of SportsCenter. Despite his bizarre and eccentric personality, ESPN likely isn’t what it is today without the impact of the combination of Patrick and Olbermann. He is credited with the advent of the phrase “This is SportsCenter” which has been used in cross-promotion and advertising for nearly two decades.
4. Greg Gumbel (1979-88)
There is little Mr. Gumbel has yet to accomplish in his illustrious broadcasting career. He has done play-by-play for the NCAA Tournament, NBA, MLB, Winter Olympics, college baseball and NFL. He has hosted shows about every sport on NBC and CBS as well as ABC. But it all started back in 1979 when he started his career at ESPN. He was a reporter, anchor and play-by-play man at a time when many doubted the future of SportsCenter. Gumbel’s no-nonsense approach has made him a model and iconic broadcaster who influenced generations of rising journalists and TV personalities.
5. Scott Van Pelt (2001-present)
The signature bald head of Van Pelt has become a staple of the ESPN television and radio broadcasts. He began working at the Golf Channel and has continued his work as one of the top host/analysts at all the major tournaments each season. Much like Patrick, Mayne and Olbermann, SVP’s comedic talents on SportsCenter helped him land an ESPN Radio gig as well as a variety of video game jobs (EA Sports).
6. Kenny Mayne (1994-present)
Few television personalities have ever had a dryer sense of humor than Mayne. The Washington native and junior college quarterback debuted on SportSmash in 1994 before moving over to the big network and developing into one of the funnier broadcasters in sports. His extensive and creative home runs calls in particular have withstood the test of time. He then developed “The Mayne Event” for NFL Sunday mornings and is still currently involved with his own feature “Wider World of Sports” as well as horse racing.
7. Linda Cohn (1992-present)
In 1987, Cohn made her first big mark in the business by becoming the first full-time national female sports anchor in U.S. radio history. She has withstood the test of time, hosting SportsCenter for over 20 years. Along the way, she was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and given the Women’s Sports Journalism Award. She also authored her own biography and has paved the way for women everywhere to break into the sports broadcasting business — or, as she puts it, “The Boys’ Club.”
8. Rece Davis (1995-present)
Laurece “Rece” Davis graduated from Alabama in 1968 and worked his way to ESPN2 by 1995. The consummate professional, Davis can play both host and analyst roles as well as anyone in the business. His work on College Football Live, Gameday Final and College Gameday make him one of the best in the business. He is always gracious with his time and is one of the few who genuinely loves the sports he covers.
9. Robin Roberts (1990-04)
The smooth-talking Roberts has been a staple of national television for over two decades. With quality catch-phrases and her up-tempo personality, Roberts developed into one of the best SportsCenter anchors of all-time. She won three Emmys for her work at ESPN and was given the Mel Greenberg Media Award in 2001. It eventually landed her on ABC’s signature morning program Good Morning America. Her very public bout (and victory) with cancer is just one reason millions have grown to love the Mississippi native.
10. Chris Berman (1979-present)
When he was good, few have ever been as entertaining and likable as Berman. Signature catch phrases and nicknames made him one of the preeminent SportsCenter anchors during the time of biggest growth for ESPN. His work on NFL Primetime and the Home Run Derby makes him one of the most distinctive personalities in ESPN history. However, his longevity might be his biggest weakness as 30 years in the business has left his shtick a bit stale. At his best (the '90s), he was one of the greats. And at his worst (the '00s), he can be nails on a chalkboard.
11. Ron Burgundy (2013)
The legend himself had a short run at ESPN — one show — but he is one of the greatest broadcasters to ever grace a television set. His interview with Peyton Manning alone was epic. And, of course, who could forget his audition tape from before SportsCenter had launched. As it turns out, Burgundy's intuition about the potential of 24-hour sports network were incorrect.
12. Brian Kenny (1997-11)
A baseball and boxing junkie, Kenny won an Emmy at ESPN and was named the network’s Volunteer of the Year in 2007. He also was named SI’s Media Personality of the Year in 2004 and Boxing Broadcaster of the Year in 2005.
13. John Anderson (1999-present)
Hailing from one of the most prestigious journalism departments in the nation at Missouri, Anderson has been one of the best new generation anchors at ESPN. He won the Oklahoma Sportscaster of the Year in 2012 and has crossed over into mainstream as the co-host of ABC's Wipeout.
14. Craig Kilborn (1993-96)
Many give credit to Kilborn, Patrick and Olbermann for bringing comedy to the SportsCenter set. He went on to host The Daily Show on Comedy Central and The Late, Late Show on CBS. He also famously appeared in Old School.
15. John Buccigross (1996-present)
The hockey aficionado has won Emmys for his work on SportsCenter and Baseball Tonight as well as NHL Tonight. He has written for the Web site (as well as a book) and hosted for ESPN for nearly 20 years.
16. Dave Revsine (1999-07)
An even-keel broadcaster is as professional as they come. A Northwestern grad, Revsine hosted a variety of shows for ESPN and did play-by-play. In 2007, he left ESPN to become the lead studio host for the Big Ten Network when the channel launched.
17. Charley Steiner (1987-01)
The jolly, bearded anchor always seemed to have a good time on the air and always seemed to be involved in the funnier SC moments (Carl Lewis?). He eventually worked his way onto ESPN’s national baseball radio broadcasts as well before moving on to the Yankees' radio team in 2002.
18. Rich Eisen (1996-03)
The affable NFL Network lead host began his broadcasting career at KRCR-TV in Redding, Calif. He landed at ESPN in 1996 and built a name for himself with baseball impersonations and quality reporting. His podcast (The Rich Eisen Podcast) is one of the most listened to on the Web (over 7 mill. downloads).
19. Tim Brando (1986-94)
Brando has been a broadcasting giant for nearly 30 years. He has worked for CBS and, now, SiriusXM College Sports Nation, but it all began nationally at ESPN. He worked on the NCAA basketball championships and the beginning of the great College Gameday as well as anchoring SportsCenter for nearly a decade.
20. Mike Tirico (1991-1997)
One of the smoothest sportscasters in the business today has arguably the best job in the business calling Monday Night Football. However, he got started on SC in the early 90s. He is calm, cool and collected at all times and it makes for an enjoyable broadcast nearly everytime.
21. Steve Levy (1993-present)
A quality and likable broadcaster, Levy has been around the SportsCenter desk for two decades. His famous “bulging disk” slip-up is one of the all-time great moments in ESPN history. He also earned the nickname “Mr. Overtime” for his work as a hockey broadcaster.2
22. Neil Everett (2000-present)
The West Coaster worked at Hawaii Pacific University for 15 years before getting back into broadcasting. His signature deep, gravelly voice and Island vocabulary makes him one of the better “new” anchors.
23. Suzy Kolber (1993-96, 1999-present)
She has been around and lasted as long as anyone in the business. Like Roberts and Cohn just before her, Kolber is a bit of a pioneer in the male-dominated industry. She also gave American sports fans one of the greatest TV moments of all-time.
24. Kevin Frazier (2002-04)
His time was brief at ESPN, but “K-Fray” has long been one of the business’ most respected personalities. He is now the host of The Insider as well as college football coverage on FX and Fox.
25. Sage Steele (2007-present)
One of the most affable hosts in the business earned her stripes as a SC anchor and it delivered her a big-time gig. Steele recently has taken over as the lead chair for ESPN's NBA coverage.
Ricky Craven didn’t put a full-court press on Victory Lane during his Sprint Cup driving career. He won only twice over a span of 11 years, but in his life as a racing analyst for ESPN — a role he’s held since 2008 — he has emerged as one of sports television’s most respected commentators.
Calm, confident and reasoned in his comments, Craven has established himself as a whip-smart analyst in a sport that often defies easy analysis. He doesn’t use catchphrases or wild rants but instead attempts to tell listeners why events unfold and what to expect around the next turn.
A driver in the Sprint Cup Series in 1991 and from 1995-2004, Craven, now 47, scored wins at Martinsville and Darlington (in a famous, grinding finish with Kurt Busch) before exiting the driver’s seat for good after the 2006 Nationwide Series season.
Craven shared some of his perspective with Athlon Sports.
Athlon Sports: How do you see a race as an analyst versus how you experienced one as a driver? How is the perspective different?
Ricky Craven: From a driver’s perspective, you’re not as aware of the big picture and what is required to pull off an event and how one or two things during the race affect so many others. Most athletes are programmed to be selfish. It’s what you need to be to compete and succeed. Some things appear one way from the driver’s seat, and the same things I see today I say, ‘OK, wow, that looks different and has a completely different effect.’
Years ago, races ended under caution. A race ended at Talladega under caution, and fans showed their displeasure by throwing things over the fence. I was appalled by it, but I also felt something I’d never acknowledged before in all the years I had driven race cars. The race finishing under caution has a horrible effect on the paying customer. It’s like, ‘We paid to see the checkered flag fly at 200 miles per hour, not 80. That’s what we came for.’ From the seat I occupy today, it was a fabulous decision to go to the green-white-checker finish. As a driver then, I wouldn’t have seen it that way.
How has racing changed for the driver since you retired?
There’s more parity, and the margins between a good car and a bad car are very narrow. There’s more strategy now on pit road. Not that we didn’t have strategy, but there’s a much greater emphasis on preserving track position now — whatever is required to do that or to get that. It’s arguably the most competitive time in the history of the sport. The double-file restarts are a bonus. I think it’s the most important aspect of the race for the drivers now, because there’s an opportunity to capitalize on three or four spots that otherwise might take 60 laps to gain. You can get three or four spots in a lap on a restart. That’s changed the game.
Some racing insiders say the car is 60 or 70 percent of the quality equation and the driver is the rest. How do you see that dynamic?
It’s 50-50 for a good car and a good driver to finish top 10. I think it’s 70-30, driver, for those drivers that are perennial top-5 drivers. The reason I say that is it’s not that a driver can carry a car. These cars are just too sensitive, but their willingness to run right on the edge and have that talent to back it up, that’s what separates the winners and the top-10 drivers.
Drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch — they run extremely hard to finish off a win or a top-5 day. I think some drivers are guilty of depending too much on a good car. They would say, ‘I need the car that Jimmie has.’ I think those drivers will continue to finish eighth to 15th because very, very, very seldom are they going to have that car. Frankly, Jimmie doesn’t have that car week in and week out. When he does, he capitalizes on it with a maximum-point day. But what about the days when he wins because he just laid it on the line? We see that out of some drivers — Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick — but Jimmie Johnson makes a living out of it. Jimmie Johnson doesn’t win a lot of races on fuel mileage or pit-road strategy. He just outruns you. Those drivers who can contribute 70 percent are in the minority — a select, very special group.
Do you think the relative importance of the driver has changed with the Gen-6 car?
I don’t think so. I think the driver has always been the determining factor. In other words, you could have 20 good drivers and we might have seasons where we have 15 or 16 winners, but the drivers who win year in and year out — they could switch teams and win. Matt Kenseth is a great example of that. Late in life, he moves from the only organization he’s been with (from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing) and has arguably the best year of his career statistically. You look at Clint Bowyer, who is a very good race car driver. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of him yet. I watch the in-car camera, and he lives on that edge. There has to be a willingness to do that, where other drivers just aren’t that comfortable on the edge. When Clint transitioned from Richard Childress Racing to Michael Waltrip, in some people’s minds, Waltrip’s program wasn’t ready for Clint. And that obviously wasn’t correct. They’ve capitalized and run extremely well. The old saying is that the cream rises to the top. If the driver is given enough time with the car, he’ll medal.
Do you think the sport has to have compelling competition pretty much every week to thrive, or can it roll along sort of on the back of the drivers’ personalities and the color and the noise?
I think the latter is more important. If we think back to some of the key figures in our sport, there are drivers who had dominant seasons — Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon. There have been some other excellent drivers who won a few races in a year and maybe won a championship, but they didn’t carry the same flavor as the elite that put up big numbers and were the drivers to beat and had a bull’s-eye on them.
Eventually, somebody is going to step up and challenge the status quo. Ernie Irvan is a good example. When I was racing, he came along and became a formidable challenger to people. All of a sudden, he was a guy who was willing to ruffle some feathers and move people out of the way. Somebody labeled him ‘Swervin’ Irvan.’ If he hadn’t gotten hurt, I think he would have continued to put up some big numbers and would have been challenging for a championship. He still had a good career. But it takes that kind of personality, like a Kevin Harvick has or even a Kyle Busch has.
As it relates to Jimmie Johnson, the reason we haven’t seen that great rivalry, that heated rivalry, between him and someone else is that he typically doesn’t win at someone else’s expense. He’s not that guy who roughs up the other drivers, but he wins like the elite drivers did. But he goes about it differently.
Can you put what Johnson has done in the last decade into historical perspective?
Very difficult. I emptied the tank to win two races in Cup. I remember winning Rookie of the Year in 1995 and thinking that I would have double-digit wins in my career. It didn’t work out. There was a period when I didn’t think I was going to win a Cup race, but I can tell you I emptied the tank trying to.
Then I see Jimmie win, and he makes it look easy. And I know it’s not easy. At this point in his life, a lot of drivers’ skills diminish. Their focus diminishes because they’ve acquired so many things and they have so much distraction, and that all comes at a price. I haven’t seen an ounce of that from Jimmie Johnson. I see him prepare like an extremely talented athlete who’s scared to death that he’ll underachieve or never win a title. He doesn’t operate like he’s satisfied. He operates like there’s an urgency. He works harder than most. He has a greater focus than most. He has less distraction than most. Those are some of the ingredients that make him so difficult to beat.
He also has this tremendous ability to preserve relationships. It’s so well documented that some of the best in our sport eventually have the feeling that ‘I’m not getting the credit I deserve’ or something along those lines, and there was a separation. They still won races, but they didn’t continue on that pace that they had with that magical combination. We all marvel at what they’ve done. Chad (Knaus) and Jimmie have preserved that, and that’s at the very core of their success.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. continues to run with the top group, but the wins have been few and far between. And he’s still looking for that first championship. What’s missing?
What’s missing the last few years was attitude. I go back to my introduction to Dale Jr. It was toward the end of my career. There has never been a question in my mind that he has the skills to be a champion in Sprint Cup. And I’ve never deviated from that. But he’s been on a hell of a ride as far as being tested and the ups and downs. I would say most people would be mentally exhausted. Dale Jr. lost his dad in this sport. I don’t how he got through that. When you put all that in a bowl and stir it up, it’s an awful lot.
But what I see right now — in the past few months, maybe he finally turned the corner. Maybe he’s finally sleeping better. Maybe he’s finally relaxed. Maybe he’s finally got that edge. But I see it in his eyes. I hear it in his voice. I see it in his interviews. There’s no question there was a difference in him in the second half of 2013. He’s got that fire. All the hard work from Steve Letarte has helped put good cars under him and rebuilt that confidence.
If Dale preserves that attitude through the offseason, he’s going to have a very good 2014. It’s going to be his best at Hendrick Motorsports. It might be his last push, but it’s going to be a good one.
Talk about Tony Stewart. What are you looking for from him this year considering what he went through in 2013?
He’s very resilient. He’s as mentally tough as anybody I’ve met, but he has a hurdle to clear in that any time you’re out of the race car, particularly later in life, you have some catching up to do. And there are some timing issues. When you jump back on the horse, it comes back to you, but it doesn’t mean that your motor skills and all the things that you perfect are going to be there in February and March.
And this is something that gets lost, but the cars are constantly changing. The cars are constantly being adjusted and changed in an effort to gain speed. You hear teams talk all the time about what they ran at a track in the spring doesn’t work in the fall. So Tony lost that whole last part of the season where the cars continued to evolve. He has some catching up to do, and, frankly, it won’t be easy.
He’s been quiet, almost stealth-like, but I’m hearing he’s working hard. I expect him to come out of the gate like a bear, but he will have some catching up to do.
What about his team? There’s quite a volatile collection of drivers there with Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch coming on board. What do you expect from them?
I expect Harvick and Busch will make the Chase. They’re just that good, and they’ll be in good equipment. I’m hedging a little bit, and that is based on one thing and one thing only, but it weighs heavily with me: Mark Martin didn’t run well in that 14 car (as a substitute for the injured Stewart).
Mark Martin is as good as anybody I’ve raced against. I know he’s an anomaly in that he’s doing this at such a late age. But he didn’t run Mark Martin-like in that car. That concerns me a little.
At the end of 2013, there wasn’t a really good measure. Danica (Patrick) was still going through the learning curve. Ryan (Newman), even though he made the Chase, he didn’t run that well in the last 10 events. And Mark was put in a situation where he had to get acclimated to the team, and it just didn’t seem to synchronize. That has me scratching my head a little.
There’s talk in the garage that NASCAR is looking to make some significant changes to the 2015 Sprint Cup schedule with the arrival of the new television contract. What do you think? Should the schedule be worked on extensively? Are other changes needed?
I think we’re in pretty good shape. I think we could use one less mile-and-half track in the Chase. Seems like we’re a little out of balance there. I’m not for or against the idea of a road course in the Chase. That’s not that important to me. I’d love to have another short track in the Chase. To me, short-track racing is one of the pillars of our sport.
I think the one big challenge for our sport is that I think we would benefit from taking 30 to 40 percent of the seats out of the grandstands. This has gone on long enough. We had a tremendous build-out when the economy was firing on all cylinders and there was an abundance of extra cash for people to travel and be entertained. The sport is healthier than it appears when you view the grandstands.
I feel good about our sport. I feel that we’re making progress, but we’re going to be perceived as underachieving as long as the grandstands are half-full or half-empty, depending on an individual’s perspective.
I don’t see why we would want that perception. The only way I know to correct that is to do away with the empty seats.
Which driver might be the next to step up into Johnson-Kenseth territory?
It’s such a tall order to try to predict that somebody will be in that company. Usually, we only see a few in a generation. We had Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson. With all due respect to all the others, we’re talking multiple championships and winning on all types of tracks.
When I look ahead, I’d say the most obvious is — or was — Kyle Busch. Kyle has 90 percent of the tools to do what the three I just mentioned have done. The 10 percent he’s missing might not come until he’s 32, 33, 34 years old. Some drivers get it younger than that. He’ll be at his best in terms of mental toughness and being able to manage races when he’s a little later in life.
The risk is that the other components diminish so that he’s not able to have the level of success to join that elite group. And some of it comes down to endurance. It’s one of the liabilities of starting really young. Do you get tired of it? Are you physically conditioned to be at your best when it matters most?
There were some competitive races in 2013, but there also were some that can’t quite be described as barnburners, particularly at some of the 1.5-mile tracks. Is there an easy solution to that? Can rules be changed? Can something be done to boost the competition at those tracks?
The tug of war is this — speed is an important contributor to the entertainment value of our sport. A lot of people suggest that we’re going too fast and that we need to slow the cars down, but that seems contradictory to what NASCAR is synonymous with. It’s got to be about speed. Track records are exciting. As the cars go faster, the drivers truly are challenged through the middle of the turn to manage that speed. Does it contribute to the aerodynamic issues that we have with the cars from second on back? It does, but there are things that correct some of that.
There are two things that are obvious to me. One is to get the front end (of the car) off the racetrack. The front end being sealed to the racetrack (with ground splitters) creates so much front grip and really magnifies the dependence. If the car out front had a couple of inches between itself and the racetrack and had some air going underneath it, the car is not going to drive as well. It’s not going to have as much straightaway speed. It’s going to create more drag or more resistance. I’m not smart enough to understand why we continue to seal off the front ends.
The other thing, and the ultimate fix — which is monumental to accomplish but it is the ultimate fix — is to not react as quickly to repaving tracks. The new asphalt creates more grip, more speed, but makes the car sensitive and edgy, not allowing for side-by-side racing. The best racing we have is at Atlanta and Texas, which is a throwback to what Darlington used to be. The reason that works, and the reason it worked at Michigan before they repaved it, is because as the tires wear the drivers are challenged to adjust their line through the corners in an effort to preserve that tire wear. It brings another element into the equation.
You can run hard early in a run, but it will come at the expense of a long run. Or you can run moderate the first 20 laps and you’ll catch all the cars in front of you in the long run. There’s some strategy. It’s fun to watch. I love that type of racing. It’s why you hear drivers rebel about tracks being repaved. When they’re repaved, at least early on, they become single-lane racetracks, and they don’t allow options. Drivers love options.
Bob Warren arrived at Professor Perry Wallace’s office at American University in 2006, and delivered a message nearly 40 years in the making.
“Forgive me, Perry,” Warren said, “There is so much more I could have done.”
The former basketball teammates at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., hadn’t seen each other since 1968, when Warren was a senior and Wallace, a sophomore, was the first and only African-American ballplayer in the entire Southeastern Conference.
Wallace’s mind raced back to the days that nearly destroyed him, but he also thought of the healing and reconciliation that had come later, and he believed that it wasn’t the “good, decent and humble guys like Bob Warren” who needed to go on living with that sort of regret, anyway.
“We are fine,” Wallace assured Warren. “Don’t think another thing of it. We were all just kids.”
Today, 46 years after Perry Wallace became the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference, and the first black scholarship athlete to play a full SEC season in any sport, it’s nearly impossible to fathom an SEC without black stars. But for there to be a Shaquille O’Neal at LSU, a Charles Barkley at Auburn, a Dominique Wilkins at Georgia, — for their even to be a Bo Jackson, Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith or Cam Newton — there had to be Perry Wallace, a man who quietly broke barriers in the southern sanctuary of sport.
Buses, movie theaters, lunch counters, schools and many city and state governments were all desegregated before the most hallowed of grounds, the athletic fields of the former states of the Confederacy. Steve Martin, a walk-on baseball player at Tulane during the Green Wave’s final year as a member of the SEC, was actually the first African-American student-athlete in the league, followed by Nat Northington, a football player at Kentucky who played in four varsity games before transferring. So it was Wallace, the valedictorian of his high school class and an engineering double-major at Vanderbilt, who became the first African-American to complete a full season and career as a varsity athlete in the SEC. And nothing about the experience was easy.
On road trips through the Deep South, he was the target of the vilest of catcalls. Back home in Nashville, his parents received letters threatening to kill or castrate their son. On campus, he was ignored by many of the same white students who cheered his prowess on the basketball court. Many of his black neighbors and peers criticized him for attending a white university. The pioneering experience was relentlessly difficult; Henry Harris, the first black basketball player at Auburn, later committed suicide, and Wallace said it took years before he was able to come to terms with his own ordeal.
After decades of distance, there is now a deep and powerful relationship between Vanderbilt and its trailblazing alum. Athletic Director David Williams calls Wallace a “hero,” and he was instrumental in retiring Wallace’s jersey and inducting him — in the inaugural class — into the university’s athletic hall of fame. Wallace, a professor at the American University law school in Washington, D.C., frequently travels to Nashville to speak to Vanderbilt students, served as the voiceover talent for a season ticket campaign, and sits on the school’s athletic advisory committee. He speaks French, sings opera, practices law, has testified before the United Nations, and is a proud husband and father. Though he’s not sure he’d do it all over again if he had the chance, he knows he’s left a powerful if underappreciated legacy, both in sports and society. When fans gaze upon his jersey hanging above the student section at Memorial Gymnasium, he hopes that they will appreciate his contributions not only “as bearing on equality in sports, but, as with Jackie Robinson, extending out to contribute to progress in larger ways.” Looking for a role model in the world of sports? Look no further than Perry Wallace.
—By Andrew Maraniss
Maraniss has spent the last eight years researching and writing a biography of Perry Wallace. The book, "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South" will be published by Vanderbilt University Press, with a publication date of November 2014. For more information or to be added to an e-mail list for updates on the title, exact publication date and author appearances, email [email protected].
Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt University.
Is Denny Hamlin’s back back? That is Question One in the Joe Gibbs Racing camp as the 2014 Sprint Cup season begins. The potent Toyota team, with one of the sport’s strongest lineups (Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Hamlin), remains in search of its first Cup championship carrying Toyota colors, and a healthy Hamlin can be a big player in that quest.
After a convincing win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited exhibition race it looks like all systems go.
The 2013 season was more or less a lost year for Hamlin. After he suffered a compression fracture in his back in a brutal crash with Joey Logano as they raced for the win in the season’s fifth race, at Fontana, Calif., Hamlin sat out four weeks, essentially losing hope of running for his elusive first championship and falling into a sort of test-driver status for his teammates as they pursued the title.
Hamlin wrestled with back issues much of the year, climbing out of the car in pain after practice at Richmond and enduring painkiller injections in his spine in search of relief. He chose rehabilitation over surgery in hopes of making his return easier and faster.
As 2014 rolls out, the good news is that Hamlin capped 2013 by winning the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway and is one-for-one in Daytona. Although the former victory was overshadowed by Jimmie Johnson’s rush to yet another championship, the win reinforced Hamlin’s status as a top driver and, importantly, kept alive his streak of winning at least one Cup race per season since his full-time debut in 2006.
It was an exclamation point on a tough year.
“You just look at the small victories,” Hamlin says. “That’s all I could do — take pride in the small victories that we had here and there.
“Now everyone is starting over clean again in 2014. For me, when you come back after missing four or five races (and have) one or two bad finishes — my Chase hopes are over. You’re kind of racing for nothing, really. It’s hard to find the motivation to perform at 100 percent when you’re trying to find yourself, trying to figure out what feel you need, really when you feel like you’re not racing for anything.”
Hamlin says his back began responding more positively in early September, just as the schedule was moving into its Chase segment.
“Right around when the Chase started, I went in for some treatment (and) got an injection that numbed the pain,” he says. “That really allowed me to get back in the gym, get back to doing rehab again. That was the point for me where I started to get better inside the car.
“Richmond was probably the worst that I felt of any weekend. When you can’t go through a corner, you can’t feel the race car because you’re getting lightning bolts of pain through your back.”
Hamlin’s car was a lightning bolt in the Unlimited, a race in which he led the most laps and won all three segments.
“I realized after the win in Homestead, how I was feeling, that we run as good as I feel,” Hamlin said. “When I feel comfortable in the car, especially in long runs and everything, I can do just about anything I need to do to be a race winner.”
If Speedweeks will tell the tale of his recovery, the story so far is shaping up to be a healthy one.
Jimmie Johnson won his sixth Sprint Cup championship last season, putting him closer to NASCAR icons Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who totaled seven apiece — a number Johnson will pursue as the 2014 season unfolds.
Barring catastrophe, there seems to be little doubt that Johnson will get to seven — and beyond. He appears to be in the prime of his career and in a good spot emotionally to push forward.
“I think you see some guys win in football or basketball and they get a big head,” says team owner Rick Hendrick. “They become bigger than life. But with Jimmie, it’s like it’s the record book for him. That’s what he wants. But he’s not letting it get to him. He’s the most unique guy I’ve ever met. He doesn’t have any ego. I don’t ever see it. He’s driven to be the best. That’s enough for him. He wants to write the record book. He’s nowhere near satisfied. He doesn’t care about talking about himself. He doesn’t care about the fanfare. He’s after the stats. At the end of the day, he wants things on the mantel.
“I’ve always said I’ve seen so many guys work their ass off to get to a level, and then they get all twisted up in the head and they kill it and blow it by getting off track from what got them there. He’s not like that. He just gets better and better.”
As Johnson prepares his quest to continue re-writing the record book, we pose six questions to the six-time champion.
How does the 2013 championship differ from the other five?
Jimmie Johnson: Granted, the question now is can you get seven and all that. But we had that “Can you keep the streak alive?” thing on our shoulders forever and ever. It maybe didn’t let us enjoy the moment. We maybe were looking ahead and to what the next year might be like. This one feels better. I think I’m more comfortable in my own skin in my sport within my team. Maybe that’s the best way to describe it. I’m comfortable and enjoying this much more than I ever have.
You failed to win championships in 2011 and 2012 after winning five in a row. Did you feel like you had to sort of re-establish yourself?
No, because I felt like it’s been a short period of time. In 2011, we didn’t have a good second half of the Chase. But then we came back in 2012 and really had a shot to win it. So, I don’t feel like this was me trying to re-certify myself. I do feel like, though, that we started over with a clean sheet of paper in a lot of respects. We’re enjoying it a lot like our first championship. It has a little bit more significance and weight. For me, it has more meaning due to the time we have together, the impact it’s made for Rick with his 11 championships and the opportunity to share this with my family. To watch (daughter) Genevieve kind of grasp what’s going on — the parenthood side of life has changed me a lot. To go through all of this now as a parent, that has a pretty good effect for me.
What are the challenges in keeping this level of success?
I think keeping the 48 team in its sweet spot. The bond that we have … it’s a big part of our success. Where our sport’s heading is the other piece. There’s change coming. Don’t know exactly what it looks like yet, but from the competition side, we know the rules package is going to change. You hear rumbling about the format changing. Our sport is ever-changing, trying to adjust to an ever-changing world. The target is moving on us. I feel like we can chase the target pretty darn well, especially if we stay connected and united as we have. I don’t see why that would change any.
You’ve had the same core group of key people with you through the championships, but a lot of other people have revolved in and out of the team. How involved have you been in keeping the team rolling along through the changes?
It’s really in Chad’s (crew chief Chad Knaus) department. But there have been years where he thought my influence might help a potential crew member leave a team and come to Hendrick. I’ve made phone calls and talked to guys I only knew in passing and tried my best driver technique to get them to come on board. There were years that I didn’t really know the new guys. Chad said, “You need to get to know them.” I’d come in on Tuesday and train with them. I just follow his lead on all that.
Some people think you just drive the car, but your input goes far beyond that, right?
Yes, I’ve got to be careful now when I say things because people are really listening. If I just make a casual comment, it could lead us down a road — a bad road if I don’t know what I’m talking about. So I’m much more strategic when I say things among the Hendrick management. Chad and I can banter back and forth. A casual comment (and) I can get the management group looking in the wrong direction.
You’ve accomplished so much in recent years. What continues to drive you?
I’m usually never comfortable from a work standpoint or trying to learn and advance and compete. I guess I was born with a lot of that. It’s a joking thing to say, but I’m serious about it — I’ve not been good at anything my entire life. And I’m finally good at something. I’ve worked my whole life. I’ve raced for 33 years now, and I’m finally confident in what I do in a car and how I can help lead my team. I know the tracks. I know my equipment. I’m finally “there.”
By Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Baseball is filled with bizarre coincidences, amazing statistics, and lots of oddball occurrences. Last season was no exception. As 2014 spring training gets underway, we decided to look back at the kookiest from 2013 in our annual Calendar of MLB Weirdness.
April 5 Emilio Bonifacio is the second player of the live-ball era to strike out four times and commit three errors in the same game.
April 5 The Diamondbacks score two runs on a single passed ball.
April 5 Xavier Cedeno is the fifth pitcher in history to allow six runs without recording an out, yet surrender fewer than two hits.
April 6 The Rangers issue three intentional walks to Albert Pujols, but he homers the two times they don’t.
April 7 Reigning Cy Young Award winners R.A. Dickey and David Price each lose their starts by a score of 13–0.
April 7 Braves batters strike out 16 times for the second time in five days, but Atlanta wins both games by scoring a combined 14 runs.
April 9 In 10.1 innings, Brett Myers has allowed more home runs (seven) than 12 entire teams have hit.
April 10 With his fifth home run in his ninth game, John Buck equals the tater total of all Mets catchers in the 2012 season.
April 10 Including his previous start against them in 2012, the Mets’ Jeremy Hefner puts 13 consecutive Phillies batters on base.
April 16 KC’s Kelvin Herrera’s MLB-high 82.1 innings without a home run allowed evaporates when he serves up three in the span of four Braves hitters.
April 20 Two of the day’s starters, Rick Porcello and Philip Humber, combine to allow 17 earned runs while retiring a total of three batters.
April 24 Baltimore’s Josh Stinson allows five hits in his season debut — four homers and a double.
April 24 Eric Hinske of the D-Backs is awarded second base when the Giants’ Santiago Casilla, warming up in the bullpen, gloves his base hit.
April 29 Milwaukee is the first team in 55 years to hit at least four home runs and three triples in a game.
April 29 Between the 11th and 15th innings of Oakland’s 19-inning win over the Angels, three different center fielders sustain leg injuries while running to first base and must be removed from the game.
April 30 The month ends with the highest home run total by catchers (117) and highest strikeout total by pitchers (5,992) of any April in baseball history.
May 3 Braves third baseman Chris Johnson appeals an official scorer’s decision by insisting he should be charged with an error.
May 7 Thirteen-year veteran Nick Punto’s home run is the first he’s ever hit prior to June 2.
May 8 The Cardinals and Cubs, playing each other, rap into four double plays apiece.
May 10-11 Cardinals pitchers hold the Rockies hitless for 49 consecutive at-bats.
May 11 Nelson Cruz cranks his third game-tying homer of the week, all setting up close Rangers victories and each in the sixth inning.
May 11 All three Marlins outfielders record an assist.
May 14 The Phillies poke their 16th straight solo home run.
May 17 Gerardo Parra’s homer on the game’s first pitch provides the sole run in Arizona’s defeat of Miami — the first time that’s happened since 1993, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
May 18 On the same day the Orioles’ streak of 109 victories when leading after seven innings is terminated, the Astros win for just the fifth time in their last 139 after trailing in the seventh or later.
May 19 Buck Showalter’s dash from the dugout to argue that a Rays double should have been called a foul ball backfires when the umps decide to check the replay and change their ruling to a home run.
May 21 Mike Trout’s cycle is the first in 81 years also to include at least five RBIs and a stolen base.
May 24 The umpire, thinking the first baseman caught the ball on the bag, calls out Jesus Sucre even though the pitcher takes the throw six feet in front of it.
May 25 All nine A’s starters drive in a run by the fifth inning.
June 4 The Red Sox score in every inning against the Rangers except the one pitched by outfielder David Murphy.
June 4 Miguel Cabrera ends a streak of 2,457 plate appearances in which he did not strike out after reaching a 3–0 count.
June 6 Bud Selig, announcing first-round picks, repeatedly calls it the “2000” draft.
June 8 Jose Fernandez and Matt Harvey are the first starting hurlers since 1884 to match up against each other in two games that lasted 15 or more innings during the same season.
June 12 Brandon Moss gets just his fifth hit over 40 at-bats in 19 games, but all are home runs.
June 13 For the second time in franchise history, the Phillies win a game in which they score three or fewer runs despite accumulating at least 16 hits. (They first did it in 1954.)
June 14 Freddy Galvis (following Carlos Gomez and Carlos Gonzalez) is the third player in eight days to hit a triple in successive innings.
June 15 Exactly one month after Raul Ibanez was the first 40-year-old in Mariners history to hit a grand slam, Henry Blanco becomes the second.
June 18 For the second time in a week, Alfredo Aceves is demoted to Triple-A immediately after beating Tampa Bay with a one-run start.
June 25 Alexi Casilla homers for the second time in 498 at-bats — both off Justin Masterson. (He failed to hit another in 2013.)
June 28 A position player for two different teams (the White Sox’ Casper Wells and L.A.’s Skip Schumaker) throws a scoreless inning after his pitching teammates allow a combined 35 runs.
July 2 The Mets, who had set an NL record by failing to score more than five runs in 30 consecutive home games, tally seven times in the seventh inning at Citi Field.
July 5 The fireworks of victory are ignited at Busch Stadium with no outs in the ninth inning.
July 9 Al Alburquerque, who hadn’t allowed a home run in his first 71 major-league games, serves up one in a second straight appearance.
July 11 The Giants win for only the third time in 17 tries, with Madison Bumgarner notching the “W” in all three.
July 14 Brandon Workman (joining Jarred Cosart and Danny Salazar) is the third pitcher in four days to take a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his first big-league start, equaling the total number who had done that in the previous 15 seasons.
July 22 Joe Blanton becomes the second pitcher (with Bert Blyleven) to allow a home run in 10 consecutive outings two years in a row.
July 28 One day after a record-tying four games end in a 1–0 score among seven shutouts in all, there are four more whitewashes, including another pair of 1–0 battles.
July 28 For the first time in 50 years, the only players with multiple hits in a game are the starting pitchers (Travis Wood and Tim Lincecum).
July 31 Texas sweeps a three-game series from the Angels with each win via a walk-off home run — just the second time a team has ever done that.
Aug. 2 The Braves become the fourth team of the modern era to hang up a five (or more)-run inning in five consecutive games.
Aug. 4 Mike Scioscia is the first manager in 30 years to give the ball to seven pitchers during the eighth and ninth innings of a game.
Aug. 4 The Cardinals get an RBI from the first eight starters in their batting order for the second time in four days.
Aug. 7 The Rangers run their total to 13 stolen bases over two nights against the Angels.
Aug. 9 Although their first four batters of the game get a hit, the Pirates fail to score in the first inning.
Aug. 9-10 After hitting five home runs in his previous 85 games, Josh Reddick doubles that total in two days.
Aug. 10 Breaking his own Mets season-opening record of 2012 by needing 233 at-bats to raise his batting average to .200, Ike Davis finally reaches the Mendoza Line in his 264th of 2013.
Aug. 13 The Twins score their 23rd consecutive run on homers.
Aug. 13 Both teams’ leadoff hitters (the Mariners’ Brad Miller, the Rays’ Ben Zobrist) homer twice — just the third time that’s ever happened.
Aug. 13-14 After driving in 13 runs in his first 153 appearances of the season, Alfonso Soriano matches that total in a span of seven trips to the plate.
Aug. 16 The Braves limit the Nats to three or fewer runs for the 13th consecutive time.
Aug. 17 The Cubs are shut out for the fifth game in their last seven at Wrigley Field, tying a major league record for home games.
Aug. 19 Jake Elmore of the Astros catches and pitches in the same game — both the first appearances of his career at those positions.
Aug. 21 Max Stassi’s first career RBI sends him to the hospital, as he is hit by a pitch with the bases loaded that ricochets off his shoulder into his face.
Aug. 24 Cliff Pennington becomes the first Diamondback ever to draw five walks in a game, doing so in the 16th inning. Two innings later, teammate Tony Campana ties his record.
Aug. 27 Alfonso Soriano socks his 400th home run and Aramis Ramirez his 350th on the same day.
Aug. 27 For the first time in 28 games, the Brewers score a first-inning run.
Aug. 30 A 38th consecutive Marlin who drew a walk fails to score.
Aug. 30 21-year-old Taijuan Walker debuts by throwing to a batterymate (Henry Blanco) who was catching for Class A Bakersfield when he was born.
Sept. 6 Yusmeiro Petit, preceded by Yu Darvish, makes this the first season in which two pitchers lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.
Sept. 13 Princeton product David Hale strikes out Princeton product Will Venable as the first batter he faces in his major-league career.
Sept. 19 Matt Moore allows Texas to steal four bases in the first four innings — one more than he’d permitted in 136 innings entering the game.
Sept. 26-28 After the Brewers beat the Mets by the same score (4–2) for the third straight day, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that this is the fourth time in the past 20 years this has happened — all involving one of those two teams.
Sept. 29 The Astros, needing 14 strikeouts in their season finale to set a major-league team record for a season, stage a clutch performance and whiff 19 times.
Sept. 29 Mike Trout sets a record for most games played in the outfield (148) without recording an assist.
Sept. 30 For just the third time in the 162-game era, no player records 200 hits, although Adrian Beltre and Matt Carpenter finish with 199.
Oct. 3 Carlos Beltran goes deep, concluding the NLCS game with 15 home runs in 129 postseason at-bats — precisely the same stats that Babe Ruth had in his postseason career.
Oct. 15 Matt Holliday finally leaves the yard after the first 242 hitters of the NLCS come up empty.
Oct. 27 One night after Game 3 of the World Series ends on an obstruction call, Game 4 ends on a pickoff — neither of which had ever happened before.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has spent much of his career failing to live up to expectations. At this point, fans are preconditioned to believe that NASCAR’s favorite son will never win a championship with Hendrick Motorsports. But a funny thing happened on the way to Earnhardt riding out his career as NASCAR’s Most Popular Disappointment: He ditched the plotline.
On the verge of age 40 (can you believe it?), Earnhardt has experienced a career renaissance. No, there was no Victory Lane for him in 2013 — the fourth season out of six with HMS he’s failed to cash in. But through the strength of a career high 22 top-10 finishes, Earnhardt wound up fifth in the point standings — the best he’s run since 2006. Snagging two poles for the first time in over a decade, he earned 10 top-5 results for a second straight year and seemed fully recovered from the post-concussion syndrome that thwarted his 2012 effort.
How good was Earnhardt? After a blown engine at Chicago, he sported an average finish of 5.5 in the remaining nine races, dropping outside the top 8 only once. A little perspective: In those same nine events, points runner-up Matt Kenseth averaged a finish of 8.1 and champion Jimmie Johnson averaged a 5.1. It’s clear Earnhardt could well have been a title contender if that engine had held up in the Windy City.
So while fans squabble over whether or not Earnhardt is a championship-caliber driver, the man is simply driving like he means it. To take the next step, though, Earnhardt needs to come out swinging in 2014. He needs to win races and then turn his attention to the title. If Earnhardt can nab a couple of trophies in the first 26 events and put together a run like he had last year — minus the blown engine, of course — he can go all the way. But he has to win races.
As always, he’s been afforded the best possible resources. Hendrick Motorsports provides arguably the best equipment in the sport. Earnhardt’s shopmate, Jimmie Johnson, won the 2013 title in the same cars Earnhardt is getting, so there are no foundational issues holding him back. Surprisingly, Earnhardt did suffer more mechanical woes than his teammates last year. HMS drivers suffered four engine failures in all of 2013, and the No. 88 accounted for three of them. Is that just bad luck, or is Earnhardt especially hard on his powerplants? That’s a question his team should be answering moving forward, because there are no mulligans in the Chase.
Oddly, there are a few questions surrounding sponsorship. PepsiCo returns for five races with the Diet Mountain Dew and AMP brands, while National Guard will be on board for 20 events and Kelley Blue Book for one. That leaves 10 points races unaccounted for, with Time Warner Cable’s commitment shifting to Hendrick’s No. 5 team and a new-to-the-sport sponsor being rumored. It’s a bit puzzling to see less than a full slate of backing for Earnhardt, who’s an 11-time Most Popular Driver award winner — that alone brings added value, as fans will buy souvenirs with sponsor brands on them.
The biggest weapon in Earnhardt’s arsenal is the team around him, in particular crew chief Steve Letarte. Unfortunately, that’s a weapon Earnhardt won’t have for long, as the crew chief announced in the offseason that this would be his last tour atop the pit box. Letarte has been largely responsible for a turnaround in his driver’s attitude; he’s the perfect mix of cheerleader and taskmaster. He requires Earnhardt to spend more time in the garage on race weekends, at the shop during the week, and he doesn’t allow him to lapse into complaints when things aren’t working on-track. Instead, Letarte makes Earnhardt communicate — which the driver is actually quite good at. Earnhardt and Letarte share shop space and an open-book policy on race cars with Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, which is a bonus as well. The teams can actually share quite a bit, because Earnhardt and Johnson have similar driving styles and like many of the same setups in a car.
Driver and chief, of course, have assured that the pending split will not effect their season, but only time will tell. Might Earnhardt be even more motivated, set on helping Letarte leave in a blaze of glory? Just maybe.
Regardless, the pieces are in place for this team to win races. If it does so, a championship battle could follow. Earnhardt is driving better than he has in years, his focus over the last two seasons is perhaps the best it’s ever been, and he has the best in the business in his corner. But, again, Earnhardt has to win, which makes his key stat “752.” That’s the number of laps he’s led over the last three seasons; by comparison, teammate Johnson led 1,985 in 2013 alone.
You can’t win races until you run up front consistently — not seventh, not eighth or ninth but on the point. Until Earnhardt shows he can do that, he’s likely to make the Chase but not to finish it on top.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to NASCAR’s most popular driver.
“He’s just a good all-around guy. He’s a good racer, very consistent,” a rival says. “The fan base that he has drives everything in NASCAR, and that is a good thing for the sport, regardless. I think this year he’s going to be in the same equipment that (Jimmie) Johnson won the title with in 2013. He didn’t get a race win, but he was in the top 5 or 10 every week and he’s going to keep sneaking up on it.”
“I don’t think much holds him back other than the pressure,” a crew chief says. “The media side of wanting him to live up to his last name is the only thing he has to deal with — and I don’t really think that is a problem for him.”
However, one media member isn’t sure how long Earnhardt can keep up the consistency: “The last two years were the most intensive his focus on a title has ever been. He came up way short, and I’m wondering if that will have an effect on future focus. He’s slated for a drop at some point, and assuming (Steve) Letarte is still as good of a crew chief as he has been the last three years, I think the driver will hold the team back a little bit.”
Looking at Checkers: Checkers? With two wins in the last seven seasons (both at Michigan) it’s hard to assume he’ll get his.
Pretty Solid Pick: That said, Junior and Stevie Letarte will point ’em to death, particularly on the plate tracks, where they had a pair of runner-up finishes in 2013.
Good Sleeper Pick: The Michigan success seems sleeper-ish to us — actually downright weird — but we’ve covered that. So give him a start at Martinsville, where he owns nine top 10s in the 14 CoT/Gen-6 era events.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: The one and only Cup track where he lacks a top 10 in the CoT/Gen-6 era is that dastardly road course in upstate New York.
Insider Tip: You know the drill by now: Earnhardt has four wins since the start of the ’05 season — that’s nine full years. If you’re serious about winning the fantasy league, bet with your head, not your heart.
No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: National Guard/Diet Mountain Dew/AMP Energy/Kelley Blue Book
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Steve Letarte
Years with current team: 7
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: 3rd (2003)
Hometown: Kannapolis, N.C.
Born: Oct. 10, 1974
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
From Five-Time, to Six-Pack, to ... best ever? It might be a bit early for that, but there’s no question that Jimmie Johnson belongs in the conversation. His 2013 championship gives him six and places the California native just one short of the Cup Series record, held by two of the sport’s immortals, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Sixty-six career wins are good for eighth all-time, and at age 38, he’s left that total plenty of room to grow. Teammate and mentor Jeff Gordon, who is third on that list with 88, said recently that he has no doubt Johnson will eventually eclipse his total.
Johnson, despite a hard battle with Matt Kenseth, made 2013’s title quest look deceptively easy. He won six times last year, including the Daytona 500 and a record-setting eighth career victory at Dover. He failed to finish only one race — due to a blown engine at Michigan in August — and his average finish of 10.7 was the best of any full-time driver on the circuit. The 5.1 average during the Chase was his best since 2007.
So, while Johnson’s No. 1 ranking may seem a bit repetitive, he’s earned it. The professional ease with which he dominates, at times boring NASCAR’s fan base, is what also keeps him a perpetual favorite. On and off the track, Johnson doesn’t “intimidate.” He simply breezes by the competition in the same way a major corporation snuffs out rivals. It’s like Johnson clocks in at 8:00 a.m., makes innocuous small talk, puts his head down and cranks out paperwork in his cubicle and takes the Employee of the Week award home at 5:00 on Friday. Compelling television? Not always — but it’s working.
All kidding aside, Johnson’s skill behind the wheel truly separates him. Smooth and aggressive, he rarely panics or overdrives the car. Some weeks he makes it all look so effortless in the cockpit that viewers must wonder if the equipment is legal.
It is. But Hendrick Motorsports — NASCAR’s version of the New York Yankees — spares no expense in giving Johnson the best. Hendrick cars are fast, but perhaps what sets the team a notch above other elites such as Joe Gibbs Racing is durability. Among the four HMS teams, there were four engine failures in 2013, one for Johnson and three for teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. In fact, if you include the customers at Stewart-Haas and Chip Ganassi Racing (five teams), the number of Hendrick blown motors was only five. The postseason is even better; Johnson has had only one mechanical DNF in the Chase since 2005.
Crew chief Chad Knaus, in his 13th year atop the pit box for the No. 48, also deserves his share of credit. Knaus has a well-deserved reputation as one of the top innovators in the sport, hands down. While that’s gotten him in trouble in the past, he’s walked the straight and narrow in recent years, perfecting the art of pushing the boundaries. Knaus is also a master at handling those around him, motivating Johnson while making the car improve throughout a race. The Johnson-Knaus chemistry, with its marriage-like communication, is simply unmatched.
Financial stability comes with Lowe’s (and subsidiary Kobalt Tools), which has backed Johnson since Day 1 in the Cup Series. The one question Lowe’s execs asked Johnson, back in 2001, was whether he thought he could win. Johnson said yes, backed it up for a dozen years, and made sure that money was the least of his problems.
One more piece to Johnson’s puzzle comes from teammates. In the early years, it was Gordon who helped Johnson learn the ropes, but now it’s Earnhardt who may be the biggest influence. Johnson and Earnhardt have similar preferences, and Earnhardt has shown that he’s a serious competitor of late, which gives Johnson both information and motivation. Hendrick’s “coopetition” produces results: In 2013, it got all four drivers in the Chase.
The pieces remain in place for Johnson to make a seventh title bid in 2014. Of course, a wacky new Chase format threatens to transform the championship from strategy-based precision to fluky crapshoot. Still, if you had to put money on any one team, this would be the one. He has fast cars, a well-managed team and unquestionable talent. He’s not invincible; pit road personnel shuffles, along with trouble managing double-file restarts, can be Kryptonite. Other teams have caught up a bit with strategy, and Knaus occasionally will get burned. And don’t be concerned about the tweaks to NASCAR’s Gen-6 — changes keep Knaus drooling, working 24/7 to burn up the competition on setups and stay 10 steps ahead at the start.
If the team can do that, Johnson has a shot at joining Petty and Earnhardt in immortality — one step away from creating a level all his own.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
There’s not a lot competitors can say about Jimmie Johnson and the No. 48 team that hasn’t already been said.
“He’s a six-time champion,” says one rival crew chief. “He proved more than once last year that he could beat superior cars just because of his driving ability; Chad Knaus is the best in the business; and the Chase is made up of tracks where Johnson shines. Now he has the goal of tying history and has always done well when goals were within reach. And did I mention Chad Knaus? Also, being in the first garage stall gives his team a feeling of confidence that shows up on the track — there’s a mental edge there.”
“There’s nothing negative to say,” a competitor says, shaking his head. “Except that he didn’t win the title in 2010 or 2011. Going forward, there will be intense pressure from fans and media as he tries to tie (Richard) Petty and (Dale) Earnhardt with seven titles.”
One media member asks: “The best ever? It’s impossible to accurately compare drivers of different eras, but the case can certainly be made. I hope that after last year’s performance fans will realize that Johnson isn’t just some creation of Rick Hendrick’s money and Chad Knaus’ know-how. He is, without question, the best driver out there.”
Looking at Checkers: Honestly, would it surprise you if he were to win at any track on any given weekend?
Pretty Solid Pick: The Martinsville tallies — with six wins and 12 top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races — are just astounding.
Good Sleeper Pick: Sleeper? Please. Well OK, maybe at Watkins Glen.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: J.J. is winless at only five Cup tracks: Chicagoland, Homestead, Kentucky, Michigan and the Glen — though that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s out to lunch.
Insider Tip: He’ll break the Michigan and Chicago jinxes soon enough, Kentucky’s sample size is still miniscule, and he’s points racing at Homestead. The roadies are an issue (relatively speaking), but the truth is that there are few, if any, chinks in the armor. This is hands-down the best team in the sport.
No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsor: Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools
Owner: Rick Hendrick/Jeff Gordon
Crew Chief: Chad Knaus
Years with current team: 13
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 1st (2006, ’07, ’08, ’09, ’10, ’13)
Hometown: El Cajon, Calif.
Born: Sept. 17, 1975
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
Unpredictable. Unprecedented. Messy. Yet, at times, borderline miraculous. All of these words applied to four-time champion Jeff Gordon in perhaps the craziest season of his career. He almost won a few times. He got wrecked — a lot. He missed the Chase. Then he made the Chase. He was counted out as a contender. Then he made himself one. He won a race, putting himself in position for perhaps NASCAR’s biggest asterisk … only to run 38th and flop the very next week. He limped home sixth in points, his best showing since 2009. And somewhere in there, he was the owner of record on Jimmie Johnson’s championship car, leaving him a 10-time Cup titlist both inside and outside the cockpit.
Yes, that all really happened. Gordon’s 2013 season got off to a roller-coaster start. It seemed as though each week he was either running among the leaders or getting caught up in something in the pack. Sometimes, it was a little of both, leaving the team in desperation mode heading to Richmond in September. Gordon’s last hope for a Chase berth was a “wild card win,” a cause he furthered by winning the pole. But there was no miracle, not enough points; the postseason field was set, and Gordon was on the outside looking in for only the second time in Chase history.
And then all hell broke loose.
Michael Waltrip Racing was caught trying to manipulate the finish at Richmond, meaning that Martin Truex Jr. was out of the playoffs and Ryan Newman was in. But only when questions also arose about a possible deal between Penske Racing and Front Row Motorsports — designed to give rival Joey Logano a postseason cushion — did NASCAR decide that there was enough doubt about who had really raced their way in. In an unprecedented move, Gordon was added to the field as a 13th entry, just hours before qualifying began for the first Chase race at Chicagoland.
It was then that Gordon finally came alive. He won only once, but he made it clear that he was there, rescuing a season that might otherwise have been the worst of his career. In the end, there wasn’t enough in the tank to win it all, but what he did do was make it clear that the 22-year vet was still hungry, and with a little good luck somewhere, could contend for a fifth title.
How much of that momentum will carry into 2014? It’s hard to say. Gordon will be paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson once again; the pair has six wins over three seasons and has never finished lower than 10th in points together. Both men have a deep respect for one another, yet at one point last season it looked like poor performance would do them in. A heart-to-heart behind the scenes, occurring last July at New Hampshire, was the saving grace that kept them glued together. Gustafson is a technical crew chief, a good mesh for NASCAR’s modern, engineering-focused technology. But where he’s so good on setups, the team often fails on strategy, losing track position in a time when traffic means the difference between fifth and 15th.
Gordon has a lifetime contract with Hendrick, although the clock is ticking. Longtime sponsor Axalta (formerly DuPont) is signed through 2016; AARP is in the final year of its deal, and with Hendrick protégé Chase Elliott rising quickly through the ranks, it’s unclear what the future holds for the relationship. With long-term deals in place for HMS teammates Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne, it’s clear what road Elliott will travel to Cup.
Gordon can race as long as he wants, but with four DNFs for wrecks last year (and involvement in a few more), he’s aware of the sport’s physical toll. Add in two young children and the priorities that accompany a family, and it becomes obvious that times have changed for NASCAR’s driver of the ’90s. Expect the retirement question to pop up this season, a potential distraction for what’s been the slowest of Hendrick’s four-car operation. Gordon himself added fuel to that fire before the season even began, telling the media, “If that (fifth title) happened, that would be all the reasons I need to say, ‘This is it. I’m done.’ Go out on a high note.”
That leaves time on the wrong side for Gordon, whose former rival, Dale Earnhardt Sr., won his last title at age 43 — which is how old Gordon will be midseason. The key for Gordon will be the first 10 races, where he has slipped outside the top 10 in points the last two seasons. Struggling out of the box for a third year, against ever-increasing competition, will not be the charm for a legend who’s learned the hard way that there’s a fine line these days between “hanging in” and “hanging on.”
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Gordon showed during the Chase that he can still wheel it,” a rival crew chief says. “And of course he’s in Hendrick equipment. He faced a lot of criticism in 2013, and the resolve inside of him stepped up and made him drive even harder. I think he’s really enjoying showing his kids what Daddy does for a living and sharing victories with them.”
“He’s getting older,” another says. “There aren’t many drivers who’ve won a title after 40 — and he’ll have to go through his teammate to do so. … Gordon hasn’t put together a multiple-win season in years, and honestly, Alan Gustafson hasn’t shown that he can put Gordon in contention for a title very much during his tenure on the box. Surprisingly, the Gen-6 car hasn’t made much of a difference in his performance.”
“It’s hard to imagine Jeff Gordon as an elder statesman, but that’s what he now is in this sport,” a veteran media member says. “We’ve seen other drivers in years gone by assume that role while struggling to continue to pile up wins and championships. At this point in his career, Gordon is more competitive than most of those guys were, but his days of 10-win seasons and titles are over.”
Looking at Checkers: Trophies are liable to come on any track for Gordon — just don’t expect for them to come in bundles anymore.
Pretty Solid Pick: Gordon has scored multiple victories at only one track since 2011: Pocono.
Good Sleeper Pick: In his last 10 starts at Darlington, Gordon has eight finishes of fifth or better with one victory (2007).
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Oddly, his worst track statistically since the advent of the CoT is Watkins Glen, where Gordon has averaged a 22.1-place finish with two top 10s in seven races.
Insider Tip: Eighty-eight career victories, but only 13 in the CoT/Gen-6 era. Assign blame as you will, but understand that he’s not going to net your fantasy team a ton of wins.
No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: AARP “Drive to End Hunger”/Axalta/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
Years with current team: 22
Under contract through: Lifetime
Best points finish: 1st (1995, ’97, ’98, 2001)
Hometown: Vallejo, Calif.
Born: Aug. 4, 1971
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro
What Kasey Kahne needs most heading into the 2014 NASCAR season is a little luck. He couldn’t seem to find much of it in 2013 and, as a result, finished a distant 12th in the Chase standings. Entering the season among the title favorites, Kahne instead was caught in a tale of two extremes. When things were going right, he climbed as high as second in points, collecting trophies at both Bristol and Pocono along the way. But when they weren’t, the field blew by, including teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. That duo put together outstanding Chase runs to cap off the season while Kahne faltered down the stretch. Three finishes of 27th or lower in the final 10 races sealed the driver’s fate; he was out of the championship picture by early October.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that a lot of the problems weren’t Kahne’s fault. He actually led more laps in 2013 than in his first year with Hendrick, when Kahne finished a solid fourth — and closing — in the standings. But the normally even-keeled driver seemed off-kilter by the end of last season. A bizarre post-wreck interview at Loudon had some observers thinking concussion; three earlier wrecks at plate races, two at the hands of Kyle Busch, portrayed an image of a “nice guy” getting borderline bullied. Even a second-place run at Bristol in August, where he failed to “bump ’n’ run” for the win with Matt Kenseth — another driver who had wronged him, at Watkins Glen — fueled whispers that the driver wouldn’t ever fight back when it came to on-track contact.
No matter what side of that debate you fall on, there’s no arguing that Kahne’s average finish of 16.2 was his lowest since 2010. He finished outside the top 25 10 times in 2013 — more than a quarter of the season and double the number of “bad” races teammate Johnson had on his way to the title. Kahne also failed to win a pole for the first time in four years. But, for all that, he failed to finish only three races. That’s a testament to the determination of the No. 5 bunch.
Heading into 2014, Kahne’s team remains both stable and resilient. Kenny Francis returns as crew chief, an excellent leader who communicates well with his driver. Kahne and Francis have been together since 2006, transitioning through multiple teams and ownership crises to be the longest-tenured head wrench-driver combo behind Johnson and Chad Knaus. Francis handles Kahne well while bringing an assortment of knowledge and creativity that keeps this team on top of NASCAR’s Gen-6 chassis.
The other baseline pieces are in place. Hendrick equipment has won seven of the last eight Cup titles, and Kahne is coming to the track every week in the best stuff money can buy. Sponsorship is also never a problem. Farmers Insurance will foot most of the bill this year, along with Time Warner Cable, Great Clips and Pepsi. Kahne represents them well (he’s been a good sport in making some fairly outrageous commercials over the years) and is popular with fans. The result is solid backing that’s mutually beneficial.
Perhaps the biggest advantage Kahne has in driving for Hendrick, though, is the way the organization is run. All four teams have an “open-book” policy, pulling information from one another and working in tandem to achieve great success. Kahne shares shop space with four-time champion Jeff Gordon, a decent match as the veteran schools the youngster on improving. Team owner Rick Hendrick has long said that the secret to the team’s success is its people, putting Kahne in position for a breakthrough.
That leaves the key for 2014 as consistency — and courage. Staying out of trouble can be out of one’s control, but good racers also maximize their opportunities. Even with all his strength on intermediate ovals, which make up half the Chase, Kahne was the bridesmaid at 1.5-mile ovals four times in 2013. Second place, without the bonus points for winning, truly makes you the first loser under the Chase format. The Washington campaigner, overshadowed by his more successful teammates, has to find a way to get over the hump.
On paper, Kahne has the talent to win a Cup championship. He has the equipment and the team that can take him there. But until Lady Luck shines bright once again, what you’ll get is a lower-first-tier driver still trying to believe it.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He drives for Hendrick Motorsports, and there isn’t a greater advantage in the sport than driving for the best team in the sport,” says a crew chief from across the garage. “When Kahne has it going on a mile-and-a-half track, he’s among the best in the sport. If he can become more consistent on the intermediate tracks, he could make a run at a title. … He’s also very versatile — running on dirt and asphalt in other vehicles. That versatility helps give him the ability to handle cars that are less than perfect, although he can’t seem to overcome all of his car’s ails.”
Another crew chief agrees that consistency on the intermediates can be an issue with Kahne: “While Kahne can be good on mile-and-a-half tracks, he can also stink. He needs to learn how to find a happier medium when his car isn’t win-worthy. When the other drivers at Hendrick are looking consistently strong, the pressure can mount if Kahne isn’t running as well. How he handles that pressure can determine his success.”
“This sounds strange, but he’s almost the forgotten man at Hendrick,” says a member of the media. “I’m not sure that even more wins or a title can fix that.”
Looking at Checkers: Don’t pigeonhole Kahne as simply an intermediate-track master, as his finishes of first and second at Bristol last season suggest otherwise.
Pretty Solid Pick: Charlotte, where he’s garnered four points-paying wins and a victory in the ’08 All-Star Race.
Good Sleeper Pick: He’s feast or famine at Pocono, with two wins offset by four showings of 27th or worse in the CoT/Gen-6 era.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Not the first driver you think of when the series hits the plate tracks. And with pretty good reason.
Insider Tip: Is he ready to make a play for the title? Entering the prime of his career, Kahne saw his numbers regress in 2013 from 2012. We wonder if that would have been the case were his team housed in the No. 48’s building.
No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
Sponsors: Farmers Insurance/Great Clips/Time Warner/Pepsi
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Kenny Francis
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 4th (2012)
Hometown: Enumclaw, Wash.
Born: April 10, 1980
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Larson, a boyish-looking 21-year-old who races far beyond his years, might be NASCAR’s Next Big Thing. Then again, he might run into the Next Big Wall.
Being cast as stock car racing’s newest wunderkind and can’t-miss star in the making is to stand on shaky ground. It took Joey Logano, considered a sure-fire star when he broke into the big leagues five years ago, all of those five years to reach a level of consistent strength. Others whose talent was considered beyond question now are beyond oblivion, languishing in backwater series or watching races from home.
Larson will open the 2014 Sprint Cup season in the No. 42 car owned by Chip Ganassi and formerly driven by Juan Pablo Montoya, whose seven years in NASCAR (all with Ganassi) didn’t set the world on fire (well, except for that ugly track-dryer incident at Daytona…).
Larson drives into the Cup series having raced stock cars only since 2012. He grew up in sprint cars, turning heads in USAC sprint, midget and Silver Crown racing and reminding long-time observers of the success in those series of current NASCAR kingpins Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne.
Larson’s rapid success in open-wheel cars attracted the attention of both Ganassi and NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program (Larson has Japanese-American and Native American heritage), and the Californian joined Chip Ganassi Racing as a developmental driver while continuing to run short tracks across the country.
Larson was tossed into the Nationwide Series full-time in 2013 with very little experience in full-bodied stock cars. He failed to win, but he finished second four times and was eighth in points at the end of the season. In late August, Ganassi named Larson as Montoya’s 2014 replacement.
Some say it’s too soon; Ganassi and Larson disagree.
“We do feel that we need to continue Kyle Larson’s growth, and putting him in a Cup car was the very next step,” Ganassi says. “We’re sure there will be some growing pains, but we’re sure he’s ready. Some of those growing pains will come whatever his first year in the series is.
“This kid is a special kid.”
Larson doesn’t back away from high expectations. “I’d like to prove the people that don’t think I’m ready for it wrong,” he says. “The guys that think I am ready — let them pump their chest out a little bit.”
Logano started Cup at 18, a kid who looked like he had driven in fresh from the junior prom. He knows about the potholes.
“He (Larson) has a little more experience than I did when I started, but when you jump in these Cup cars it’s such a different world out there,” Logano says. “There will be tracks that suit his driving style perfectly and tracks that will be just the opposite. What I came to a quick realization of is that I’m against the best race car drivers in the world, so it’s tough, and all these teams are tough.
“Obviously, learning how to drive these cars is difficult, but I have 100 percent confidence he’ll figure it out. Just like anybody coming into this series, you have to give them a couple of years to figure out. It’s tough. It’s tricky.”
ESPN analyst and former driver Ricky Craven says Larson’s potential will be tested at a “number of crossroads where he has adversity and has to choose whether to go left, right or straight. There are going to be plenty of those intersections. Handling that pressure is a really important piece of the pie.”
The testing began at Daytona in early January, where last year Larson was a focal point of a wild final-lap wreck in the Nationwide Series opener. His car sailed into the outside fence (right), shredded its front and rear clips and dropped its engine into the grandstand in a violent flight.
Larson wasn’t hurt, but he got a hint of how rough the road to the top can be.
by Mike Hembree
Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikehembree
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Kyle Larson: NASCAR Sprint Cup Series star of the future.
That’s an outlook that seemed rather predictable at the start of the 2013 season. The young Californian had shown impressive talent in his quick move through the racing ranks and garnered a Nationwide Series contract from Chip Ganassi.
But the version of Kyle Larson we’ll have this year — that of a full-time Cup competitor, effective immediately — seemed almost impossible just a year ago, when Larson headed to Daytona for the Nationwide season-opener with only four career NASCAR national series starts to his name. His first full season in that second-tier division was moderately successful, with four second-place finishes, although he never won, nor was he a title contender.
Yet here we are, starting the new season with Larson’s name emblazoned where Juan Pablo Montoya’s once was on the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42. Target returns as the primary sponsor for Larson’s promotion to NASCAR’s top series at age 21.
It was a move by Ganassi that looked and felt a lot like a non-secured down-payment on Larson’s racing future. Undoubtedly, Ganassi was making a play that he hoped would head off anything resembling the raw deal Bill Davis faced when Jeff Gordon bolted his team for Hendrick Motorsports in the early 1990s.
Is it a case of too much, too soon? The jury’s still out; as with any rookie Sprint Cup driver, expect a lot of good with a lot of bad. Fortunately, Larson got four races worth of seat time in Ganassi-prepared cars for Harry Scott Jr.’s Sprint Cup team to close 2013.
Larson failed to finish his first two starts — Charlotte and Martinsville in October — thanks to engine issues. But he rolled to finishes of 23rd and 15th in the other two, impressing along the way.
It’s that kind of natural talent that made it possible for Larson to replace an all-around wheelman like Montoya. And it’s that kind of natural talent that will let him enter 2014 with little pressure from Ganassi to perform instantly. Confidence in the young driver’s future far outweighs the expected learning curve in Sprint Cup competition.
“I think Kyle is the kind of driver, when he sees an opportunity in front of him, he takes it,” says Ganassi. “If that means it’s a win, hey, great. There’s no pressure for him to win his first year out.”
Based on how well Larson ran in his limited time to close the season, worries about not winning may be short-lived. It’s not a stretch to think that Larson’s Sprint Cup learning curve will be a quick trip thanks to his unquestionable raw talent.
But just as Montoya and current teammate Jamie McMurray have found, the cars from the CGR shop may prove the biggest hindrance. Reliability hasn’t been a strong suit. Remember, too, that Ganassi and Target have gambled in the past with young Reed Sorenson — only to make a mistake.
That will not be the case here, though. Expect Larson to beat out many veterans on a weekly basis this year and in the point standings come November. And if a few breaks fall his way, he could just crack the top 16 by Richmond in September.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
Kyle Larson is the most highly touted rookie the Sprint Cup Series has seen since Joey Logano, and those in the garage have nothing but praise for the youngster.
“Extremely versatile — can run anything and win,” one crew chief says. “He made it to where he is by winning and racing everywhere and in anything. He’s not a spoon-fed bitch.”
“His car control is about as good as anyone in the series,” another gushes. “And he’s striving to learn more about racing. He spends as much time as possible in cars to continue his development.”
The one potential hindrance, warns a rival, will be the equipment afforded him: “He’s in Ganassi equipment. The team he is on gets their engines from another organization. They also do not have the engineering depth of the larger teams. They are a tier-two team and will always be handicapped by the inability to control their own engine development. Plus, he’s a rookie and still learning how to race. He’ll have to learn how to pace himself on longer races.”
No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Chris Heroy
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2017
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Elk Grove, Calif.
Born: July 31, 1992
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Jamie McMurray probably feels pretty good about the possibilities that this year holds. Of course, McMurray, one of the sport’s most upbeat personalities, probably feels that way almost every year.
With a new crew chief, a new teammate and the momentum of the personal upswing that 2013 brought, McMurray has his sights set on finally making a Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance. He’s in a contract year, too, so continued improvement could pay dividends in the form of more regular paychecks in his future.
Not so fast.
We have been down this road before with the driver from Joplin, Mo., as recently as his unforgettable 2010 season. That year, McMurray scored his emotional Daytona 500 victory after holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr., accomplished what former teammate Juan Pablo Montoya never could with a notable Brickyard 400 win and otherwise earned a career-high nine top-5 finishes. He didn’t make the Chase that year — the all-too-familiar inconsistency of a Ganassi NASCAR operation caught up with him — but surely he had built his No. 1 team into ... something.
Two seasons, 72 races and two top-5 finishes later, McMurray remained stuck in rebuild mode. He was 27th in points after the 2011 season and 21st after 2012.
Why, then, should we see the moderate improvement from him last year any differently?
With McMurray, we have reached the point in his career where what you see is what you get. He’s a more than capable driver, but this year marks McMurray’s 11th full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. In that period, he has seven wins and averages a little more than one top-10 finish per every four races. He has never finished higher than 11th in the season point standings, the only full-time, funded driver to run every year since 2004 and not make the Chase. Frankly, those simply aren’t top-tier numbers.
Positive thinkers will see McMurray’s 15th-place finish in last year’s point standings as reason to believe things can finally be different. At the very least, his Chip Ganassi Racing team is trying.
In a move that likely should have been made sooner — it bears repeating that McMurray had a grand total of two top-5 finishes in 2011 and ’12 — Kevin “Bono” Manion, McMurray’s crew chief since his arrival at CGR in 2010, was reassigned by the team following the 2013 season finale. Replacing him is Keith Rodden, formerly the lead engineer on Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Rodden had previously followed Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis through stops at Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Red Bull Racing.
The move is an interesting one for CGR overall as it comes just a season after the team made a company-wide change in its sourcing of Chevrolet engines. Out were the powerplants produced by sister company Earnhardt-Childress Racing; in were the V8s supplied by Hendrick Motorsports. They seemed to make a difference in the team’s performance, so don’t be shocked if CGR follows the sport’s trend among many other mid-level teams and forges what many term a “technical alliance” with Hendrick.
As for Rodden, it’s too early to tell if he’ll make a bona fide difference. What makes the hire fascinating is that he is a mechanical engineer by trade. Ganassi didn’t shop for a crew chief known for race strategy, instead maximizing the intricacies of car setup. That’s a smart move, as fast cars win races over wild, in-race gamblers these days (just ask Jimmie Johnson).
McMurray’s restrictor plate prowess may give his No. 1 team a large boost in the Daytona season opener, just as it did with his win at Talladega last fall. His four total victories at Daytona and Talladega since 2007 are the most of any current driver.
But as the series settles into the normal grind of racetracks, McMurray’s new working relationship with Rodden will likely take some time to find its legs. It’s a two-fold process that will require Rodden to learn what McMurray wants from the car while simultaneously learning how to handle the day-to-day management of a Sprint Cup team.
Throw in an inexperienced young hotshoe in Kyle Larson, who’s joining the team as Montoya’s replacement, and there will be plenty of new challenges to overcome in the entire CGR camp early this season.
Undoubtedly, McMurray will stay positive about it all. We’ll just have to wait and see if he can surprise us.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“McMurray has proven he can win in the Cup Series,” says a garage-area rival. “And suddenly, he’s the elder statesman at Ganassi. His role as a mentor for Kyle Larson could very well invigorate his driving. McMurray continues to race go-karts, which keeps his passion for the sport alive, but he’s going to have to step up his game to keep from being outshined by Larson.”
“McMurray can be a Jekyll and Hyde driver,” a rival crew chief says. “Depending on the side of the bed he wakes up on can determine if you’re going to get the driver on the wheel or the driver just stroking. He’s working with a new crew chief in 2014, which means the dreaded chemistry-building year; and he’s driving Ganassi equipment ...”
One media member wonders if the likable Missourian is “too likable,” saying, “It’s impossible to not like McMurray — he’s a good guy, always smiling. But I wonder if that serves as a disadvantage. Sometimes you have to be mean, and McMurray doesn’t have that mean streak in him like Tony Stewart or the do-anything drive that we’ve seen out of Jeff Gordon.”
Looking at Checkers: Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks. Not quite Mikey-esque, but close.
Pretty Solid Pick: Martinsville must remind him of his karting days, as McMurray has seven top 10s in 14 starts there in the CoT/Gen-6 era. A note, though: He’s never parlayed any of those showings into a top-5 performance.
Good Sleeper Pick: McMurray has averaged an 11.25-place finish at Bristol since 2010. That’s about as sleeper-ish as we could find.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s one of those drivers who has never adapted to the road courses. Jamie Mac has three career top 10s in 22 starts.
Insider Tip: An addendum to the plate track stat above: He’s feast or famine on the big tri-ovals. Also, wait a few weeks to see if CGR has some kinks worked out before using him in the fantasy lineup.
No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: McDonald’s/Cessna/Banana Boat/LiftMaster
Owners: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Keith Rodden
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 11th (2004)
Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
Spring training has commenced in Florida and Arizona, which means Opening Day is right around the corner. While there is never any lack of players, teams or topics to follow regarding America's pastime, here are 14 storylines to keep an eye on in MLB this season.
1. Cano in Seattle
The Mariners quantified desperation in December when they plowed $240 million into one player in an effort to escape irrelevancy. That player was the best on the free-agent market, Robinson Cano, who turned 31 in October and is now signed through 2023. Critics panned the deal, citing the recent folly of 10-year contracts to players over 30. “It’ll be another club that in five years from now, maybe less, will be looking to move an enormous contract and eat a bunch of it,” ESPN’s Curt Schilling said at the winter meetings. “It never fails. It’s three, four, five years. Six is a stretch. Because it’s impossible to stay healthy in this sport.” History supports Schilling, the former pitcher, with Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols standing as powerful warning signs the Mariners did not heed. But Cano has been remarkably durable, playing in at least 159 games in each of the last seven seasons, and he is the majors’ most productive second baseman. After losing half their fans since 2002, the Mariners felt that the contract was a risk they had to take. “Anytime you can make your club better — and especially if you can upgrade with a star anywhere — it helps everything,” says Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik. “It helps your club currently, it helps you going forward.” The Mariners, with just two winning seasons in their last 10, hope the Cano decade is a lot better.
2. A’s Held Hostage
How many times must raw sewage seep into the locker rooms at the O.co Coliseum before Major League Baseball lets the Athletics move to San Jose? It happened twice last season, yet MLB continues to let the A’s twist in an ill wind. Commissioner Bud Selig’s indecisiveness on the future of one of the game’s most innovative franchises is baffling. Selig formed a committee to study the situation in 2009 yet has not authorized the A’s to move. The San Francisco Giants claim San Jose as their territory, and Selig seems unwilling to reverse that, even though the Giants got the territory as a favor from the A’s in 1992. The city of San Jose, which is ready to break ground on a baseball-only ballpark, is tired of waiting and filed a lawsuit last year accusing MLB of conspiring to stop the team’s proposed move, which it denied last June 17. As a business, the A’s need clarity on this, if only Selig would act. The whole ordeal stinks, you might say, except for the team’s performance on the field. Despite notoriously low payrolls, the A’s will attempt to win their third AL West title in a row.
3. Instant Replay
When Major League Baseball announced plans to begin using widespread instant replay for the 2014 season, the league warned fans to expect some kinks in the system, which will be reviewed after the year for possible improvements. The evolving process (which began with reviewable home run calls in August 2008) will seek to correct blown calls on the field through a new challenge system, in which managers will get three challenges per game, one in the first six innings and two thereafter. The manager will keep his challenges if he is correct (that is, if the call is overturned), and an unused challenge in the first six innings does not carry over to the rest of the game. A league official monitoring video feeds in New York will make the final call on each challenge, which MLB believes will solve the problem of protracted manager arguments. But will managers really abide by the new rule that prevents them from arguing an overturned call? And if the system works well, will baseball push to expand it even further, to cover checked swings or even balls and strikes? That seems doubtful, but for years it seemed unlikely that MLB would even take this step. But this is a legacy item for Bud Selig, who insists that this will be his final season after more than two decades as commissioner. It should make for a fascinating subplot, where the umpires on the field will finally have access to conclusive footage that fans have had on their televisions for years.
4. Cardinals Pitchers
Year after year, it seems, the St. Louis Cardinals just keep finding them. Young impact pitchers continue to flow from the minor leagues to Busch Stadium. The Cardinal Way got a lot of attention in October as the rest of the league marveled at the instant success of pitchers who did not even start the season in the majors, like Carlos Martinez, Kevin Siegrist and Michael Wacha, who won his first four postseason starts before losing the final game of the World Series. Remarkably, the Cardinals’ postseason roster included only one pitcher — Lance Lynn — who was also on the active roster in their 2011 championship run, and had such depth that a 15-win rookie, Shelby Miller, pitched only once in October. “You’ve got to give the organization their props for what they’ve done in drafting to get these young kids up here,” says the former ace Chris Carpenter, who retired in November. “Not only their stuff but their personalities, because that goes along with it too. These guys want it.” With Jaime Garcia returning from shoulder surgery, the Cardinals could have a logjam in the rotation, with Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly, Wacha, Lynn, Miller and Martinez, whom the team would like to try as a starter. However it shakes out, expect some little-known rookie to make a major impact, in the rotation or relief, to help the Cardinals continue their reign as the premier team in the National League.
5. Top Twins
The Minnesota Twins probably know they will not contend this season. They have lost at least 96 games in each of the last three seasons, the longest such streak in Minnesota history. But the Twins are inching toward respectability, spending $73 million on free-agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes, and they could soon take a major leap forward. Twins fans will keep a close and hopeful eye on the jewels of the farm system, Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano, who finished the season ranked first and third, respectively, on MLB.com’s list of the top prospects in the game. Buxton, a 20-year-old, five-tool center fielder, dominated two levels of Class A ball last season, hitting .334 with 12 homers and 55 steals. Sano, a third baseman who turns 21 in May, hit 35 homers at two levels while batting .280. He reached Double-A last year and could debut in Minnesota this season. Either way, figure on both to be at Target Field for the Futures Game, part of the All-Star festivities this July as the Twins host the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 1985.
6. Kershaw Goes for Four
The race for an ERA title does not capture the imagination the way, say, a home run race does. Earned run average is a rate statistic, not a counting statistic, and the need for a calculator removes some of the romance. But Clayton Kershaw’s pursuit of a fourth consecutive National League ERA crown is worth following. This run by Kershaw, the Dodgers’ dominant lefty, evokes the hallowed name of Sandy Koufax, another Dodgers lefty who was the last pitcher to accomplish the feat. Koufax did it five times in a row, from 1962 through 1966, when he retired at 30 with arthritis in his left elbow. Kershaw, who turns 26 in March, is the first pitcher to win three ERA titles before turning 28. He shared a clubhouse embrace with Koufax at Dodger Stadium after helping the Dodgers advance in the playoffs last October. “He’s the first Clayton Kershaw,” Koufax said. “He doesn’t deserve to be compared to anybody. He is who he is and he’s great.”
7. Ryno Gets His Chance
It’s been 46 years since a Hall of Famer managed in the majors after managing in the minors. Most baseball immortals lack the patience for the climb, or let their ego get in the way. But this is the route Ryne Sandberg took as he worked his way back to the stage he dominated as the National League’s premier second baseman in the 1980s. The Phillies, who sent Sandberg on his way to Cooperstown in a disastrous trade with the Cubs in 1982, are giving him his chance. After managing in their farm system and coaching in Philadelphia, Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel late last season. Manuel set a club record for wins by a manager and guided the team to the 2008 championship. The problem for Sandberg — a no-nonsense leader who demands attention to detail — is that many of those same players remain on the team, resulting in an aging, injury-prone roster that does not seem ready to win. The Phillies’ front office seems to expect the core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley to perform as it did several years ago, with three expensive pitchers — Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon — leading an otherwise threadbare staff. It’s a lot to ask of Sandberg, who is signed through 2016, but nobody expected much from him as a player, either — and we all saw how that career turned out.
8. Chicago Hopeless
The Cubs lost 96 games last season. The White Sox lost 99. The 195 combined defeats were the most ever for the city’s teams in a single season, and this isn’t exactly a town known for winning, with just one championship since 1917. Neither team looks poised to compete for one this season, with both on roughly parallel rebuilding tracks. The Cubs have spent their first two years under Theo Epstein’s leadership trying to flood a lean farm system, and the team appears to have several high-ceiling hitters on the way, like Javier Baez, Kris Bryant, Albert Almora and Jorge Soler. The White Sox started their teardown last season, and their system is not as deep, but they do have some young, impact major leaguers to excite the South Side. Outfielder Avisail Garcia, 22, enters his first full season in Chicago after parts of two seasons with Detroit. The Sox also splurged for the slugging Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu, spending $68 million on a player who hit .360 with three homers in the World Baseball Classic. Neither team has much pitching depth, but the White Sox have a genuine ace in Chris Sale, and the Cubs unearthed an All-Star last season in Travis Wood. Their turnarounds could take a while, but the teams recognize the task ahead of them. The race to respectability is on.
9. End of the Suffering
In the early 2000s, baseball was remarkably democratic. Nine different teams won a championship in the decade from 2001 through 2010, with six of those teams doing so for the first time in decades and two others, the Diamondbacks and the Angels, winning the first World Series in franchise history. The Red Sox erased 86 years of misery, the White Sox 88. The Cardinals won after 24 years without a title, the Phillies after 28, the Giants after 56. The last three seasons, though, we’ve seen some of the same old teams lifting the trophy: the Cardinals again in 2011, the Giants again in 2012 and the Red Sox again in 2013. Across the baseball landscape, eight teams have still never won a championship, and 11 others have gone at least two decades since their last. In other words, a full two-thirds of MLB fan bases are ripe for a catharsis. The outpouring of emotion and affection from proud, long-suffering fans is baseball at its best, and we can’t wait to see who experiences the feeling this fall.
10. Albert, April and the Angels
Last spring training, Angels ace Jered Weaver said that one thing was absolutely, positively essential for the team to succeed. “I’ve been here long enough now to know that it’s not fun playing catch-up,” Weaver said. “Every game’s important no matter whether it’s April or August.” A slow start in 2012 had cost the Angels a playoff spot despite a winning season. Last season, the Angels sputtered to a 9–17 April and wound up with their worst record since 2003. Josh Hamilton had his worst season, the pitching mostly fell apart and
Albert Pujols did not play after July 26 because of plantar fasciitis. Even when healthy, Pujols was rarely the force he had been with the Cardinals, hitting .258 with 17 homers and a career-low .767 OPS. The Angels might have expected such a decline late in his 10-year contract, but not in Year 2. With eight years remaining on his contract, the Angels need some reassurance that Pujols, at 33, can resume his Hall of Fame pace. With the Dodgers rediscovering their mojo in Los Angeles, the Angels cannot afford another bad start. Ideally, they need production from Pujols and Hamilton to fuel a strong April, change the vibe around Angel Stadium and give the game’s best all-around talent, Mike Trout, a chance to shine in October.
11. Just Who Is Stephen Strasburg?
In 2010, the Washington Nationals’ Stephen Strasburg was the most electrifying player in baseball, crackling radar guns with 100 mph fastballs, devastating breaking balls and changeups at 90 mph. Then came reconstructive elbow surgery that wiped out almost all of 2011 and impacted the Nats again in 2012, when they shut him down in early September because of an innings limit and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Nationals had admirable intentions, but their sluggish follow-up to a division title showed that postseason berths are never assured and served as a model for how not to handle a high-impact young pitcher. Freed from innings restrictions last year, Strasburg still threw only 183, with just one complete game. He was better than his 8–9 record, but he needed offseason surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. That was an ominous sign for a pitcher whose red-flag mechanics didn’t change much after Tommy John surgery, and raises the issue of whether or not he can ever be the durable, dominant ace fans envisioned. As he turns 26 this summer, Strasburg is under pressure to prove he can lead a staff into October, and then endure high-stress innings when he gets there.
12. The Prince of Texas
The Detroit Tigers wasted little time dumping Prince Fielder last offseason, shipping him to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler despite owing him a staggering $168 million for the next seven years. Only one player (Alex Rodriguez in 2004) had ever been traded with so much remaining on his contract. But the Tigers, who included $30 million in the deal, saw an escape hatch and took it, despite winning the AL Central in Fielder’s first two seasons, once advancing to the World Series. Fielder helped the Tigers, providing protection in the lineup for the incomparable Miguel Cabrera, who won the MVP award both seasons. But he hit just 55 homers overall (he once bashed 50 in a single season for Milwaukee), and his .457 slugging percentage last season ranked 12th among qualifying major-league first basemen. In Texas, Fielder moves to a hitter’s ballpark with a jet stream in right center field, and at 29, he has a chance to reestablish himself as one of the game’s elite sluggers. The Rangers, who never adequately replaced Josh Hamilton’s left-handed power last season, need a jolt of power after posting a .412 team slugging percentage, the lowest for the franchise since 1995. Fielder heralded the change by taking a new uniform number: 84, making him only the second player in MLB history to wear that number, after J.T. Snow of the 2006 Red Sox. He chose 84 for the year he was born; the Rangers would be pleased if that represented his home run total for the next two seasons.
13. Hall Managers
Together they won more than 7,500 games in the major leagues, with 17 pennants and eight championships across 91 seasons of writing out lineup cards. This July 27, Tony La Russa, Joe Torre and Bobby Cox will share a stage in Cooperstown, N.Y. All three were elected unanimously by the veterans committee for induction to the Hall of Fame. All three are master storytellers, with Cox’s avuncular charm, La Russa’s professorial wisdom and Torre’s colorful anecdotes sure to be on display at the podium. With their induction, the Hall of Fame more than doubled its roster of living managers, with Torre, La Russa and Cox joining Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda as candidates elected on the basis of their managing careers. The trio ranks 3-4-5 on the all-time victory list for managers — La Russa, then Cox, then Torre — in careers that stretch back to the late 1970s. “I certainly am honored to go to the Hall with these two guys,” Torre says, “because it just would have felt somewhat empty if one of us was left out.”
14. The Biogenesis Bunch
Before last season, the Toronto Blue Jays signed Melky Cabrera to a two-year, $16 million contract, betting that he could repeat his breakout seasons with the Royals and the Giants despite his bust for performance-enhancing drugs. As it turned out, when Cabrera was healthy, he was ordinary, making his performance spike seem even more suspicious. Then again, the Oakland A’s brought back Bartolo Colon after his suspension, and Colon made the All-Star team. Cabrera and Colon were part of the Biogenesis scandal, which ensnared 13 more players last summer, plus Alex Rodriguez. All served their suspensions (except for Rodriguez, who appealed his) and will be back for 2014, including the 2013 All-Stars Everth Cabrera, Nelson Cruz and Jhonny Peralta, who signed for $53 million with the St. Louis Cardinals. How long will fans maintain their hostility toward the Brewers’ Ryan Braun, a former National League MVP, and will Braun be booed in Milwaukee? He has always seemed sensitive to his image, so how will he react? More important, will Braun return to his usual productivity, or will he decline, calling into question just how good he really is? As Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the New York Times last summer: “We’re going to find that out.”
—Written by Tyler Kepner for Athlon Sports. This is just one of the features that can be found in Athlon Sports' 2014 MLB Preview magazine, which is available on newsstands and online now. Starting with 21 unique covers to choose from, Athlon covers the diamond and circles the bases with enough in-depth preseason analysis, predictions and other information to satisfy fans of the national pastime from the Bronx to the Bay and everywhere in between. Order your copy now!
Martin Truex Jr. has finally broken away from the nightmare that was the last 11 races of the 2013 season.
“It was like getting punched in the face. You didn’t see it coming,” Truex says of the ordeal last year. “It came out of nowhere.”
That punch was the self-poisoning of Michael Waltrip Racing in the name of earning Truex a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup during the Richmond regular-season finale last fall. Late in the race, the team orchestrated a plot that featured an intentional Clint Bowyer spin to cause a yellow and a slowed Brian Vickers to help earn him points. The scheming worked originally — Truex qualified for the Chase that night — but then fell apart in a heap of smoldering debris when further investigation from NASCAR resulted in scorching penalties.
The team lost $300,000 in fines immediately. Truex, seemingly unaware of the events, was booted from the Chase. And just a few weeks later, primary backer NAPA — one of the last remaining full-season sponsors in the sport — let its displeasure be known as it dropped support of the team after 2013.
Talk about a roller coaster of emotions. Truex was a free agent for 2014 just weeks after he was seemingly on his way to being a Chase entrant for the second straight year. With the news coming late in Silly Season, options were few and far between.
Truex, though, has landed on his feet thanks in large part to Kurt Busch and Gene Haas (co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing) striking an unexpected deal last fall. Busch bolted to the multi-car team after a one-and-done year in the Furniture Row Racing No. 78. It was a somewhat unexpected opening of a Sprint Cup seat and one that came later in the season than the sport has seen in recent years.
Just like that, a Cup career was saved. But to hear Truex tell it, the opportunity has some unexpected benefits that Michael Waltrip’s team couldn’t provide. First and foremost: Fast race cars are the priority for team owner Barney Visser.
“Barney says if it makes the car go faster, we get it. Those are the types of things as a race car driver that you look for,” Truex said in November before taking a subtle swipe at MWR. “As much as it sounds crazy, but fan experiences, shop tours and all those kinds of things don’t make cars faster. These guys are 100 percent focused on making race cars faster.”
Truex took the job essentially sight unseen — he never even traveled to the team’s unusual race shop location near Denver before signing the two-year contract — but he’s spot-on in his assessment of what FRR cares about. Visser, the owner, is also the sponsor and uses the race team as a marketing vehicle for his chain of Furniture Row stores. The best marketing? Well, that happens when you’re up front. Busch drove the team to higher levels than ever before last season with his unexpected berth in the Chase, and you can bet Visser will be expecting similar results from Truex.
Can he do it? The move results in a major test, considering how Busch was able to take the car from previous driver Regan Smith and show substantially improved results right away. How quickly Truex adjusts may be one of the more interesting sub-topics throughout the season.
Fortunately, FRR is maintaining a critical piece of its success from last season: its technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing. The agreement basically allowed FRR to operate as a fourth RCR team at the track — Busch and FRR officials meet with RCR drivers and officials each weekend to share data.
In September, Mark McArdle — FRR’s Executive Director of Competition — was named RCR’s Director of Racing Operations, further cementing the relationship between the two operations.
The agreement works surprisingly well for FRR because, as Truex says, the team doesn’t have the red tape that a traditional multi-car operation might have.
“When they want to build a part and put it on the race car, they do it,” Truex says. “There is no five, six weeks of going through a system to get it on the race car. I think that, from a technology standpoint, it’s a great thing.”
Still, the challenge remains steep. Truex must beat more competition — Busch figures to be a Chase contender, Denny Hamlin shouldn’t miss more time, Tony Stewart will return and Brad Keselowski figures to improve — while establishing himself with a new team. Expect him to be competitive, but that’s a lot of talent to beat that wasn’t around in 2013.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
It’s a new year with new surroundings for New Jersey native Martin Truex Jr.
“Truex is jumping into a Chase car, and he no longer has to deal with Michael Waltrip,” one crew chief says. “Furniture Row’s alliance with Richard Childress gives him better engineering and technical support than he had at MWR, and the relationship still gives him teammates to lean on. Plus, he doesn’t have to appear in any stupid commercials. Now he’s out to prove that he really deserved to have made the Chase last season.”
“Funny, he’s already becoming an elder statesman in the sport and only has two wins,” another crew chief says. “Truthfully, he’s just not as good as other drivers. He’ll battle expectations after what Kurt Busch did in the car, too. And while the relationship with Childress is a plus, FRR doesn’t get the brand new technology simply because they’re a satellite team.”
“Furniture Row is paying RCR handsomely for the assistance, and they proved last year that with the right driver, that can be money well spent,” a media member observes. “Still, Kurt Busch didn’t win with it, so it’s hard to imagine Truex jumping in and raising the level of performance.”
Looking at Checkers: There’s a chance, sure, but Kurt Busch wasn’t able to secure the victory many were predicting, and he’s the better wheelman.
Pretty Solid Pick: Five top 10s in six CoT/Gen-6 era races at Homestead-Miami Speedway is an encouraging stat.
Good Sleeper Pick: Most places, notably Texas, Phoenix and the road courses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Despite his DEI pedigree, Truex has never been a masterful plate racer.
Insider Tip: The Furniture Row-Truex match is a comfortable one, but it may resemble the Regan Smith years more than the Busch year. Don’t misinterpret: There is potential for some wins over the next few seasons; just don’t expect those wins to come in bundles.
No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet
Sponsors: Furniture Row
Owner: Barney Visser
Crew Chief: Todd Berrier
Years with current team: 1
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 11th (2007, ’12)
Hometown: Mayetta, N.J.
Born: June 29, 1980
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Truex courtesy of Furniture Row Racing.
There are fresh starts in sports, and then there is Clint Bowyer’s fresh start this season in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
No, it’s not a clean break for the favorite son of Emporia, Kan. And no, his actions in last year’s regular-season finale — he played a key role amid a web of finishing-order fiddling by his Michael Waltrip Racing team that ignited the sport’s biggest controversy in years — haven’t been completely forgotten.
But when Bowyer fires his Toyota engine and rolls away from pit road to start the 2014 season at Daytona International Speedway, he will at least have broken the calendar connection to the events that left him so defensive and his MWR team in such shambles. This is a new year, and every day is a little farther from a night of itchy arms and questionable pit stops that left him — and NASCAR — with quite the black eye.
Bowyer, of course, has tried to get past it since the night it happened. The public relations part worked pretty well — he basically went silent for much of last year’s final 10 weeks — but the competition side didn’t do much. Of course, that might have been helpful, too. Bowyer led just 69 laps in the Chase and finished in the top 5 only twice. He wasn’t exactly a front and center target for miffed fans.
In fact, Bowyer enters 2014 coming off a winless season for the first time since his 2009 campaign with Richard Childress Racing. For a driver who came so close to the title in 2012 — with three wins and a second-place points finish — the shutout was a bit of a surprise.
Winning is something Bowyer will likely fix early this year. He’s become something of a short track ace, with four top-5 finishes in six races at Bristol, Martinsville and Richmond last season, and could very easily end his winless streak on NASCAR’s smallest venues. But title contention? That’s a tougher go, as Bowyer will drive without a critical teammate who had worked alongside him in his first two seasons at MWR.
Thanks to the Richmond scandal, Martin Truex Jr. departed after major sponsor NAPA decided the negative publicity of the event was too much, dropping support at the close of last season. Truex was forced to scramble for a full-time ride this year and wound up in the No. 78 Chevrolet fielded by Furniture Row Racing.
It’s hard to say if Truex and Bowyer were incredibly close — there was no real public emotion from either about the unplanned separation — but there is little doubt that they had built common ground on how to work together for setups as teammates. Relationships like that naturally take time to build. Now, Bowyer must adjust to Brian Vickers, the part-timer with the team who earned a full-time ride after winning at Loudon in July. Meanwhile, team co-owners Michael Waltrip and Rob Kauffman have put smiley faces on the situation, saying two streamlined teams can still be successful in NASCAR (see: Team Penske).
There’s truth to that. It’s not a drastic setback, but it’s a new and unexpected layer of complexity. Plus, don’t underestimate the cost to MWR of losing such a significant moneymaker like NAPA. The team had to lay off employees as a result, which could mean fewer resources devoted to finding speed. Even Vickers, returning from blood clots, is a bit of a question mark; one health problem leaves Bowyer the lone ranger (Jeff Burton, hired part-time, will run only a handful of races).
Despite it all, MWR’s top driver should fully expect to be a Chaser for the fourth time in the last five seasons thanks to continued consistency and a sport-mandated easier road to qualification. Bowyer pulled off a fairly remarkable feat from late 2006 to early 2010, when he failed to finish only one of 113 races. After six DNFs in his final year at RCR in 2011, Bowyer has steadily been improving in that department again with four DNFs in 2012 and two last year.
There’s little doubt that Bowyer used that foundation to shape himself into a pretty secure Chase spot last season, as he averaged a modest regular-season finish of 12.4. He did match his career best in top-5 finishes last season (10) and had the most lead-lap finishes of his career (32).
While Bowyer still hasn’t completely emerged from the dark cloud last season brought, NASCAR’s continued tinkering with the Chase format in the offseason has significantly shifted fans’ focus. If the on-track trends continue, Bowyer will be just fine by the time the series returns to the scene of the crime, in Richmond, for a second time.
What the Competition is SayingAnonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Clint is very easy to talk to, and that makes him a sponsor’s dream,” a competing crew chief says. “He’s on the verge of being a championship driver. He’s proven he can win on several types (of track) — most likely due to his dirt track background, which gives him excellent car control. Bowyer overcame the runner-up jinx and had a strong run in the points again last season.”
“His team is in turmoil,” another counters. “If he does anything remotely suspicious this season, he’s going to get examined worse than a TSA strip search. MWR has cut back on employees, and the reduced resources are going to make it more difficult to win. … Also, he is now engaged. There are many people who think having a woman that involved in your life can be detrimental.”
“I bet he’s glad that’s all over,” a media member says, referring to last year’s Richmond controversy. “I really don’t know what to think about MWR right now, though I believe Bowyer can rise above any deficiencies. He should be entering his peak from a career abilities perspective, but I don’t think too much of (Brian) Vickers as a teammate — but honestly, he’s not much different than (Martin) Truex.”
Looking at Checkers: All jokes about Richmond aside, his two wins and eight top 10s in 14 CoT/Gen-6 era races ain’t bad. In fact, they’re pretty darn good.
Pretty Solid Pick: And his CoT/Gen-6 era results at Talladega — two wins, eight top 10s — are eerily similar to the Richmond numbers.
Good Sleeper Pick: We’re thinking that witty quips about under-the-radar road course winners have expired since the likes of our boy here, along with Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Kasey Kahne, have loosened the stranglehold formerly held by the Stewarts, Gordons and Ambroses.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Darlington. It’s always been Darlington.
Insider Tip: The career numbers may not yet reflect it, but give Bowyer the horses and he’ll drive anything to the front. A classic “jack of all tracks, master of none.”
No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Sponsors: 5-Hour Energy/Peak Motor Oil/AAA Mid-Atlantic
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Brian Pattie
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 2nd (2012)
Hometown: Emporia, Kan.
Born: May 30, 1979
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Bowyer courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing
Brian Vickers is a talented race car driver. We’ve known that since he won the then-Busch Series championship with Hendrick Motorsports in 2003. We were reminded of it again last July when he stunned the Sprint Cup Series with a win at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. It was the first for a part-time driver in the sport’s top division since Trevor Bayne pulled off his upset win in the 2011 Daytona 500, and just the third since 2009. It was the first on a non-restrictor plate track since Jamie McMurray won in Charlotte in the fall of 2002.
That left Vickers back in the position to rebuild his career. Following the win, Michael Waltrip Racing solidified a deal with longtime sponsor Aaron’s that brought Vickers back to full-time participation in the Cup Series this season. It was a sunshine and rainbows moment, closing the road to redemption after prior illness and the closure of Red Bull Racing, which left Vickers without a full-time gig.
If only the fairy tale could have wrapped up so nicely. Last fall, the medical issue Vickers faced once before — blood clots — returned, forcing him out of the final four races of 2013.
The move, combined with the real-life health scare, disrupted the rhythm of this Cup Series transition. With Mark Martin off to Stewart-Haas Racing filling in for an injured Tony Stewart, Vickers was set to finish the season in MWR’s No. 55. It was a beautiful symphony of opportunity for him to get as comfortable as possible before the pressure of points and Chase qualification in 2014 kicked in.
Instead, Vickers sat on the sidelines.
“If there’s anything to be positive about with (this) news it’s that this is only a temporary setback,” he said in October. “The timing for this is never good, but I’m glad we’ll get it out of the way now and be ready to run for a championship with the Aaron’s Dream Machine in 2014.”
Undoubtedly, Vickers had decent timing on the matter, because he’ll be eligible to compete when the season begins. But there is little doubt that this second instance of blood clots is raising more and more red flags about long-term commitments to his racing activities — from potential sponsors to potential new teams, including his current one.
Fortunately, the blood clots aren’t explicitly dangerous to Vickers when he’s in the car. It’s the medication to break them apart that creates a danger of internal bleeding should he be involved in a serious incident. Vickers’ time away allowed him to take the medication as prescribed and returning only when treatment was complete.
Vickers also lost more than just seat time last season. The original plan when MWR signed him to the full-time deal was that longtime MWR crew chief Rodney Childers would be on board. But Childers’ profile was rising in the sport — he was on the pit box for Vickers’ New Hampshire win — and when Stewart-Haas Racing came calling in need of a crew chief for Kevin Harvick, Childers took the deal. He was let go by MWR just days later. Competition director Scott Miller stepped in to run the No. 55 in Childers’ absence, but in December the team’s lead engineer, Billy Scott, was promoted to the role. This season will mark his first as a crew chief in the Cup Series.
Vickers, who played a small role as a pawn in that Chase scandal last fall at Richmond, also lost a teammate and second source of on-track information when sponsor NAPA Auto Parts officially cut ties with the organization. Martin Truex Jr. was forced to find a new ride, leaving Jeff Burton as a part-timer in the newly christened No. 66 at MWR. Only Vickers and Clint Bowyer will run full-time for the title.
After years of growth, MWR is again left scrambling to ensure it remains a competitive, well-funded entity. Will that lead to more pressure on Vickers to perform? Likely.
Adding to the concern is Vickers’ propensity for tearing up equipment. In his 17 starts in 2013, Vickers finished only 12 of them. Four of the DNFs were due to crashes — a rate that, if extrapolated over the course of a 36-race season, would be obnoxiously high.
Vickers has shown improvement and increased on-track maturity through most of the stops in his career. He’ll need to double down on commitments to those ideals, stay healthy and keep away from mid-race trips to the garage if he wants his full-time gig to stick.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“Vickers has proven to be very fast in spurts and has been able to run near the front in equipment that other people could not perform in,” a competitor says. “He is a very humble person and will do whatever the team needs to get better. He won’t take crap from other drivers as we saw with (Tony) Stewart at Sonoma a couple of years ago. Vickers also fits in well from a fan base perspective. He’s big in the extreme sports hobbies that attract fans.”
“The blood clot problem is a big concern,” a rival crew chief says. “Whether they can claim that they were explainable and there was an obvious reason, it still doesn’t eliminate the fact that they happen. Try as you might, another clot could show up again and then a team would need to find a replacement driver. That’s hard for a team, especially at the Cup level, to make that kind of commitment when the driver could be out of the game at any point in time.”
“He’ll show flashes, but he tears up a lot of equipment,” one media member says. “And I worry about this blood clot issue. I mean, if it keeps happening — once I can understand, but a second time? How does a team convince a sponsor to invest in a driver who’s health is iffy?”
Looking at Checkers: Since the inception of the CoT, Vickers’ six Michigan starts have been fruitful, to the tune of one win, two top 5s and five top 10s.
Pretty Solid Pick: Atlanta has been kind as well, with a 10th-place average finish in his last seven starts.
Good Sleeper Pick: His last four starts at Bristol line up like this: fifth, fourth, eighth and fourth. Betcha didn’t realize that.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Phoenix, where he’s recorded only one top-10 finish (fifth) in his 14 Cup starts.
Insider Tip: Vickers stepped up and delivered in his “something to prove” period. Now that he’s got the job, will the results hang steady, or will he revert back to his wrecking ways?
No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
Owners: Michael Waltrip/Rob Kauffman/Johnny Harris
Crew Chief: Billy Scott
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2015
Best points finish: 12th (2009)
Hometown: Thomasville, N.C.
Born: Oct. 24, 1983
Photos courtesy of Michael Waltrip Racing
More and more, the college basketball regular season fades into the background for the general sports public.
Early entries to the NBA Draft have left the sport with few players who become household names by the time they are upperclassmen.
Creighton’s Doug McDermott should be in that rare class of college basketball superstar, but his career began in the Missouri Valley Conference, giving him a barrier to notoriety other productive seniors — Tyler Hansbrough, for example — never had to battle.
McDermott is wrapping up one of the best careers in college basketball along multiple fronts. He’ll finish among the top career scorers in college basketball history, but he’ll join even more elite company than just the 3,000-point club.
Here's why McDermott's four seasons shouldn't be overlooked.
Updated March 8.
11 Need-to-Know Facts about Doug McDermott
He in the rare 3,000- points club.
McDermott became the eighth 3,000-point scorer in Division I history thanks to a career night March 8 with 45 points against Providence. McDermott became the first player to hit the 3,000-point milestone since 2006 and one of the few in recent decades to do it while playing for a nationally prominent program.
|Top Scorers in College Basketball History|
|Player||Last Year||Total Points|
|1. Pete Maravich, LSU||1970||3,667|
|2. Freeman Williams, Portland State||1978||3,249|
|3. Lionel Simmons, La Salle||1990||3,217|
|4. Alphonso Ford, Mississippi Valley||1993||3,165|
|5. Harry Kelly, Texas Southern||1983||3,066|
|6. Keydren Clark, Saint Peter’s||2006||3,058|
|7. Doug McDermott, Creighton||2014||3,011|
|8. Hersey Hawkins, Bradley||1988||3,008|
|9. Oscar Robertson, Cincinnati||1960||2,973|
|10. Danny Manning, Kansas||1988||2,951|
|11. Alfredrick Hughes, Loyola (Ill.)||1985||2,914|
|12. Elvin Hayes, Houston||1968||2,884|
|13. Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina||2009||2,872|
|14. Larry Bird, Indiana State||1979||2,850|
|15. Otis Birdsong, Houston||1977||2,832|
This season alone, he overtook some big names.
McDermott is going to pass some college basketball giants as he climbs the list above, but he’s passed some giants just in the last two months. Among the names on the all-time scoring list McDermott has overtaken since he joined the 2,500-point club on Dec. 29: Kansas' Danny Manning, Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, Indiana State's Larry Bird, Princeton’s Bill Bradley, BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale and Navy’s David Robinson.
He’ll join elite company as a scorer and rebounder.
McDermott isn’t just an elite scorer. The 6-8 forward is also a standout rebounder who has averaged 7.6 boards per game in his career. His scoring totals combined with his rebounding totals puts him into more exclusive company. McDermott is one of eight players with 2,750 career points and 1,000 rebounds, joining, among others, Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, Kansas’ Danny Manning, Indiana State’s Larry Bird, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough and Loyola Marymount’s Hank Gathers
He’ll join even more elite company as a three-time All-American.
McDermott’s most recent comparison in terms of four-year players collecting numbers and winning awards is probably the Tar Heels' Hansbrough, but the Creighton forward can do something even Psycho T couldn't. McDermott already has been a first-team All-American selection twice, and he’s a virtual lock to do so a third time. If that’s the case, he’ll join Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and OU’s Wayman Tisdale as the only three players to be named first-team consensus All-Americans three times.
Dougie McBuckets isn’t a bad nickname.
McDermott couldn’t be this productive for this long without a nickname, so Dougie McBuckets it is. McBuckets — err, McDermott — has led the nation in field goals two seasons in a row with 307 in 2011-12 and 284 in 2012-13. No player had done it in back-to-back years since 1995-96. McDermott is running neck and neck with NC State's T.J. Warren for the national lead in field goals.
He’s half of one of the best father/son tandems in college basketball.
We’ve seen productive father and son scoring duos on the college level, including one of the most prolific this season. McDermott and his father, Greg McDermott, are having one of the most productive careers for a son playing for his father the coach. When McDermott passed Tennessee’s Allan Houston (2,801 points playing for his father Wade) on the scoring list, Doug and Greg became the second-leading scoring tandem of a son playing for his father. The leaders won’t be caught — LSU’s Press and Pete Maravich. McDermott likely will join Pistol Pete as the second player to win national player of the year honors while playing for his dad.
He's a walk on
When Creighton starting guard Grant Gibbs was granted a sixth year of eligibility during the summer, McDermott gave up his scholarship to make room for his teammate. McDermott, or more accurately his father, is paying Doug's full tuition at Creighton this season. Not a bad investment.
He’s efficient, and he's clutch
McDermott wouldn’t put up these kinds of numbers if he didn’t take a ton of shots from the floor. Indeed, he’s averaged 13.9 shots from the field per game in his career. But he’s also never shot less than 50 percent from the field in a season and has a career average of 45.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers. With a game-winning 3-pointer in the final minute against Butler on Thursday, McDermott has three game-winning baskets late in games this season, including this last-second trey against St. John’s.
He’s not a Missouri Valley creation.
Many of the top scorers of all time have been the product of a player facing overmatched competition in a lower-level league. First, the Missouri Valley was one of the best mid-majors, a league that produced a Final Four team in 2013, while McDermott was in the conference. Before Creighton began Big East play, McDermott averaged 22 points in 23 games against major conference competition (we’re including the Mountain West since McDermott faced San Diego State twice in his career). McDermott is averaging 29.1 points per game against Big East competition this season.
No one saw this coming, not even his dad.
Creighton lucked out by getting McDermott to play in Omaha but not because his father as the coach allowed the Bluejays to sign a player they otherwise wouldn’t have landed. McDermott was originally committed to go to Northern Iowa, where his Greg was the coach before he took the Iowa State job. So why didn’t Greg recruit Doug to play at Iowa State? Dad didn’t think his son could thrive at the Big 12 level. And it’s not just Greg McDermott who was caught unawares. McDermott was high school and AAU teammates at Ames (Iowa) with Harrison Barnes, the No. 2 prospect in the class. Barnes was recruited by plenty of high-major programs before landing at North Carolina. Moreover, another of McDermott’s AAU teammates, Zach McCabe, landed a Big Ten scholarship to Iowa. McDermott didn’t land at Creighton until he was released from his scholarship at Northern Iowa after his father took the job in Omaha.
He hasn’t won in the postseason.
The last box for McDermott to check in his career is NCAA Tournament success. Creighton has twice lost in the NCAA round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, losing to No. 2 seed Duke in 2013 and No. 1 seed North Carolina in 2012. Creighton reached the championship game of the CBI when McDermott was a freshman before losing two out of three in the final series to Oregon.
Richard Childress Racing’s iconic, stylized No. 3 will make its return to the Cup Series for the first time since February 2001. That will undoubtedly be one of the sport’s biggest headlines heading into the 2014 Daytona 500, as Childress promotes grandson Austin Dillon to the seat Dale Earnhardt made famous. And the expectations that come with carrying one of the most recognized and revered numbers in motorsports history are not lost on him.
Childress, in fact, believes Dillon is the man to face them head-on. “We had quite a few discussions on it,” Childress says. “Sure, there’s pressure, but I think the pressure from the number drives him.”
The stats back the claim. The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion, Dillon also has a Camping World Truck Series title to his credit (2011). He comes from a racing pedigree — the Childress connection is well documented, and his father is former journeyman racer and current RCR general manager Mike Dillon. Childress made it clear that Earnhardt would approve of the move, claiming that “The Intimidator” wanted a replacement who could compete for titles, year in and year out.
RCR, as expected, is throwing every resource at this venture to ensure that happens. Sponsorship comes from Dow Chemicals, General Mills and Bass Pro Shops, strong sources of funding to ensure competitive equipment. Earnhardt-Childress engines are ultra-durable, with just one failure among all three RCR teams in 2013, and that means that if Dillon avoids trouble, his cars should be running at the end of the day. Crew chief Gil Martin engineered three third-place points finishes over the last four seasons for Kevin Harvick, and he has been a mainstay at the company since 2000. He’ll provide veteran leadership that will be critical to the young driver’s success.
But while Dillon has the support system in place, it’s not going to be as easy as the lower divisions appeared to be for the young driver. While RCR equipment is among the best in the Cup Series, several teams can make the same claim, and that means there will be a lot of drivers fighting for real estate on the points chart this year. The teen positions around the Chase cutoff, in particular, will be a slugfest — and Dillon is on that cusp. A Nationwide championship doesn’t guarantee success; just ask Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 19th in the premier series one year removed from an NNS title in a previously top-5 car.
Perhaps the best asset Dillon brings is consistency. He captured the NNS title without a single win, and he doesn’t tear up race cars. To date, his Cup numbers are far from earth-shattering — though 11th- and 14th-place runs at Michigan last year are reason for optimism. Also, a top-3 run-gone-wrong on the final lap at Talladega was impressive in that it showed he had the composure to hang with the big boys. However, running sporadically and for multiple teams did not allow Dillon to establish any kind of rhythm or communication with a crew chief.
Considering the challenges ahead — as a rookie and with the “special circumstances” that come with the ride — a top-20 points finish over a full 36-race slate would be a very successful debut.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“He's won titles in two national series and comes from a racing family that enjoys racing anything,” a rival crew chief says. “His dirt experience will serve him well when he goes to the next level. He already has several races in Cup cars so he’ll be able to give quality feedback to his team. … Gil Martin is going to be his crew chief. He has been a proven winner in Cup for a long time, and he’ll help bring Dillon along.”
“He’s driving the 3 (car). Whether people love it or hate it, they’re going to be talking about it,” another crew chief says. “There is going to be all sorts of pressure about driving that car, and the longer it takes him to succeed the more attention he’s going to get from fans and media. He’s also always going to have to battle the perception that he was given the ride and didn’t earn it.”
“Dillon wasn’t bad in faux-RCR stuff and in the 14 (car) last year,” a media member points out. “Though I sometimes wonder about his killer instinct. I’m not convinced a poor finish really hurts his heart — unlike his brother Ty, who strikes me as the one with a little chip on his shoulder.”
No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: Dow Chemicals/General Mills/Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet
Owner: Richard Childress
Crew Chief: Gil Martin
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: N/A
Best points finish: N/A
Hometown: Lewisville, N.C.
Born: April 27, 1990
Top photo by Action Sports, Inc.; Dillon courtesy of Richard Childress Racing.