Articles By Athlon Sports
Every year the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits a stretch of the season in which it is premature to judge the championship hunt, but cogent enough to pinpoint problems with underperforming drivers and teams. It’s an odd stretch, for sure. Through eight races we have seen some unexpected strong performances from non-household names, while also getting much of the same from the usual title-contending suspects, some of which you will read about below. It’s been a crazy, competitive year that has provided plenty of statistical fodder.
As usual, that’s why I’m here. Use this knowledge to increase your understanding of the sport, to strengthen your fantasy roster or to look the like the smartest NASCAR fan at any race-watching party you attend. I prefer the third option, but warning: you’ll be perceived as annoying after a while. Resort to chips and dip if that happens.
4.5 Busch’s 4.5-place average finish in the last six Richmond races is the best in the series by three whole positions.
He also has three victories and five finishes of sixth or better in those six starts. He has twice led over 50 percent of the race (spring 2010 and spring 2011) and his lone win in a lean 2012 season for the No. 18 team came on the .75-mile track. With hometown favorite Denny Hamlin potentially still sidelined due to injury, Busch is Richmond’s heavy-footed favorite.
15.7 Kyle Busch’s No. 18 team holds the most inconsistent finish deviation (15.7) in the Cup Series.
In a season thus far bookended by finishes of 34th at Daytona and 38th last weekend in Kansas, Busch has scored five top-5 finishes which include two victories. The winning is good; never knowing when the fickle No. 18 will flip from Jekyll to Hyde isn’t. After five consecutive top-5 runs, two crashes prompted by an ill-handling car highlighted his afternoon at Kansas. It’s a good thing Richmond is next on the schedule, considering Busch ranks as the track’s most productive driver, with a 6.250 PEER there in the last 12 races.
I’m wondering if there is a Major League Baseball player that played on a championship Little League World Series team and a championship College World Series team and a championship Major League Baseball team.
Which of my three favorite golfers — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson — has the most holes-in-one?
Two years ago, J.D. Gibbs came within a front bumper of stealing Carl Edwards away from Roush Fenway Racing. Then Ford’s hot young star, Edwards would have bumped Joey Logano out of the No. 20 ride to the tune of a reported $10 million.
Turns out, that could be the best money Gibbs ever saved.
What happened? Edwards got a sweeter deal, including stock options from Ford, to remain at RFR, then came within a whisker of the championship (losing to Tony Stewart in a tiebreaker). But he’s won just once since, stuck in rebuilding mode after losing longtime crew chief Bob Osborne, and hasn’t found a full-time sponsor to replace AFLAC, causing multiple companies — and occasionally Ford itself — to foot the bill.
In the meantime, the money thrown at Edwards, combined with patchwork sponsorship for Matt Kenseth’s No. 17 effort, made the latter ripe for the taking. JGR, with Logano still struggling a year later, grabbed Kenseth for an undisclosed amount – but likely a fraction of the Edwards price — saving backer Home Depot from potentially jumping ship completely. In the meantime, Gibbs’ outgoing driver won once more before handing the keys to a car that desperately needed a veteran’s help.
Where are we now, eight races in? Kansas’ Victory Lane offers a clue as we go Through the Gears:
FIRST GEAR: Matt Kenseth could be Joe Gibbs Racing’s missing piece.
Observers felt that Kenseth, looking for a fresh start after 13 years with Roush Fenway Racing, would click with the No. 20 team. But no one expected this type of start: two wins and six races led in eight starts for a team that’s been downright dominant at times. A driver known for consistency as opposed to controlling races, Kenseth already has led more laps this season (482) than he did throughout all of 2012. And it’s not like he was off the pace in his last year with RFR; Kenseth captured three victories, including the Daytona 500, and landed seventh in series points.
“I think it can always go better but things have been pretty good from a performance standpoint,” was his comment on Sunday concerning 2013. “I’m really, really happy. I think as an organization one of our cars — if all the stars would have aligned — could have won every race this year if everything would have worked out.”
Compare that to Roush Fenway Racing, which has half the wins and just 207 laps led thus far. How ironic was it that Kenseth’s final on-track pass for the lead came at the hands of his old car, the No. 17 driven by Ricky Stenhouse Jr.? Clearly, JGR got itself the better end of the deal, one it feels includes a leader within its stable of high-profile drivers.
For Kenseth, it’s more that the pressure’s off, with sponsorship secure and no mentoring needed for teammates Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The 2003 Cup champ has 10 times the experience than Logano, and add in top-15 finishes so far this season at every track that also hosts a Chase date (even Martinsville, once kryptonite), and it’s clear this addition could bring not just the 20 team, but the entire JGR organization into serious title contention this fall.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle Busch is cursed by Kansas.
Everyone talks about Kyle Busch’s newfound maturity. But the one person Busch still needs to see, fresh off an Anger Management appearance with Charlie Sheen, is a wizard. Kansas Speedway has been Busch’s Achilles Heel, the one track where he has yet to score a top-5 finish and a place where he’s been cursed for two-plus years. The spell was in full effect this weekend, as Busch wrecked three times — from practice through the race — en route to destroying two cars and winding up in 38th place.
“Spun twice on our own,” he quipped after the race-ending incident. “Just don’t know what to do with Kansas.”
Maybe one extra apology to David Reutimann would be a start. That driver, angry over the way Busch bumped him out of the way at Bristol in 2010, chose to get his revenge at Kansas later that season — at a crucial point in the Chase — which proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back on Busch’s title run. The Las Vegas native was wrecked by Reutimann, ran 21st and has done no better than 10th at the 1.5-mile oval since.
That remnant of “Old Kyle,” along with the mental frustration attached to it, still comes out on The Plains. That needs to stop, considering this track’s second date remains smack dab in the middle of the Chase.
THIRD GEAR: There is such a thing as too fast.
While Kansas put on a far better race compared to Texas a week ago, both experienced the same set of problems that hindered side-by-side competition. Average speeds in both cases were well over 190 miles an hour; straightaway speeds at Kansas approached 210. If NASCAR saw that high of a number at Daytona — considering what happened in February — restrictor plates would be replaced with parachutes attached to each car’s rear end.
So why didn’t NASCAR even blink at Kansas? For now, its answer to “slowing the cars down” is providing a safe, rock-hard Goodyear tire compound so that if a driver spins, it’s his or her own fault — sort of a weird way to deflect blame. But considering that’s exactly what’s happening — half-a-dozen cars spun out on their own Sunday — isn’t the risk failing to provide a reward? With the current compounds, cars can run upwards of 200 laps on left-side tires and have little to no falloff. That makes a car like Kenseth’s the best all day unless you can nip it through pit strategy to gain track position, which limits passing and excitement for fans.
The Gen-6 car, when provided a softer tire compound, has proven to be racier than the Car of Tomorrow. Restarts at Kansas showed its true potential, with cars four-wide at times in the desperate battle to gain positions before everyone bottomed out at the same speed. The pieces of the puzzle are there, NASCAR just has to find a way to slow the cars and pair them with a softer compound tire so the drivers can actually use them to their advantage.
1. NASCAR honors victims, heroes of Boston Marathon explosions
Just as it did after the large-scale attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NASCAR will serve in the role of honoring those affected by Monday's horrific events at the Boston Marathon. Beyond the expected emotional pageantry of Sunday's pre-race ceremonies at Kansas Speedway, two Sprint Cup teams with unique ties to Boston and its annual road race have even made plans to recognize and support the victims and heroes in various ways.
Roush Fenway Racing, the NASCAR venture tightly partnered with Boston's Fenway Sports Group, will carry a unique "B-Strong" decal on each of its cars this weekend. Team owner Jack Roush has also pledged to donate $100 per lap led by his team to relief efforts in Boston. Fenway Sports Group, of course, owns the Boston Red Sox, Fenway Park and other Boston sports enterprises.
Meanwhile, Michael Waltrip will recognize his personal tie to the Boston Marathon by having each of his Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota's sport car numbers this weekend in the same font as the marathon's bib number system.
“The news coming out of Boston this week was very personal to me,” said Waltrip. “When I ran the Boston Marathon in 2000, I remember thinking about what a privilege it was to be able to participate and all the hard work it took to be there. When you can see those international flags flying in Copley Square, you know you are about to complete your journey. I know the joy those runners were feeling at that moment when their worlds changed."
Undoubtedly, expect many in the garage to be sporting Boston Red Sox gear, too.
2. Streaking Kyle Busch hopes to avoid 2012 mistake
This season, when Kyle Busch has found the lead, there's been at least two times in seven races when he hasn't looked back. In three others — now good enough for a career-best streak — Busch at the very least hasn't fallen from the top 5 when the checkered flag fell.
A top 5 for Busch on Sunday would push that top-5 streak to six and, more importantly, overcome a major gaffe he had at Kansas just last fall. It'd also mark his first top 5 at the 1.5-mile track.
Busch was just about to assume the lead of last October's event on Kansas' newly-repaved surface when he lost control exiting Turn 4. He made slight contact in the process, but the damage was enough to steal any good handling from his No. 18. A later crash sealed his fate for the day in 31st.
"Hopefully, we have a good car like that this time around and I don’t make a mistake like that," Busch said.
Busch, of course, wasn't the only driver to fall prey to a tricky Kansas track. The caution flag waved a track record 14 times in October — good for a series high among all tracks in 2012.
3. Martin Truex Jr. has had enough second fiddle
If you didn't sense his disappointment after Saturday night's race at Texas Motor Speedway, let's make one thing abundantly clear: Martin Truex Jr. is straight tired of finishing second. It happened again at Texas, and it happened twice last season at Kansas.
Truex was by far more dominant in the spring race last season before the re-pave, leading 173 laps. The Texas runner-up meant it has been 210 races since Truex won his only career Sprint Cup race at Dover in 2007 for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. If you'll remember, Truex's win that day came in a Monday race after a Sunday washout and was overshadowed by antics between Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart that left both wrecked and Busch parked by NASCAR.
See why Truex might be a bit tired of playing back-up?
"We had a good run in (Las) Vegas, and ran well at Texas," Truex said this week, more removed from his disappointing Saturday night. "It seems like our mile-and-a-half, big track program is pretty good and kind of like Kansas, so (I) look forward to going there."
4. Almirola returns to site of best career Sprint Cup run
Predictions for Aric Almirola to run well in the season's first 1.5-mile track race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell way short, but a very solid seventh-place finish last weekend at Texas should bode quite well for the No. 43.
Leading 69 laps in last fall's Cup return to Kansas, Almirola fell out of contention from the lead when he began suffering tire issues. Eventually, despite turning the race's second fastest laps and proving to be a top-5 car by speed both early and late in green flag runs, a tire exploded on Almirola and put him in the Turn 4 wall.
He finished 29th.
It was both a glimmer of hope and a knotting defeat for the underdog Richard Petty Motorsports team. Almirola, still searching for his first career win and just his third career top-5 finish, admittedly hasn't stopped thinking about a return.
"I've been looking forward to Kansas since last October when we left there. We were so good last fall. To have it all taken away with some blown tires really stung," Almirola said.
A solid run at Kansas would be extra nice for Almirola due to sponsor Farmland being headquartered nearby. He'll do battle in a brand new chassis built by RPM.
Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe traveled to The White House recently, as part of the recognition for winning the 2012 Sprint Cup championship. As it is, it might be the last time Keselowski and Wolfe do much celebrating for a while. NASCAR found the rear end housings in both the No. 2 and No. 22 Penske Fords to be “not within the spirit of the rules” – whatever that means. Actually, what it really means is both Keselowski and Joey Logano are docked 25 points and will be without their crew chiefs (each fined $100,000), car chiefs and team manager for the next six weeks – pending their appeal. While crew chiefs bear the brunt of being put across NASCAR’s knee, drivers are not immune as well. Let’s take a look at the 10 most memorable NASCAR driver punishments.
10. Dale Earnhardt Sr. – Coca-Cola 600 1993 – Held 1 lap for rough driving
There was a time when even “The Intimidator” got a little too rowdy for NASCAR’s liking. As this clip shows, Earnhardt got a little close to Greg Sacks on the 1993 Coca-Cola 600, causing him to spin off Turn 4. Earnhardt was held one lap for rough driving, much to the chagrin of an animated Richard Childress. Check out the tint job on that No. 3 car. Just what does Lumina mean anyway? Loosely translated, it means 1993 Champion and eventual winner of the Coke 600 despite spotting the field a lap. For Earnhardt, this penalty wasn’t so much a punishment as it was a slap on wrist.
9. Kyle Busch – AAA 500 – Held 3 laps for speeding on pit road/unsportsmanlike conduct
Kyle Busch and the No. 18 team put a hurtin’ on ’em last Saturday night at Texas, but it was a different story during the 2010 Chase. Recovering from a spin in the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch was penalized a lap for speeding for what NASCAR took as him keeping from going to go a lap down. After initially refusing to come in, then going Walter Sobchak and invoking Constitutional rights, Kyle gave the official working his pit double No. 1’s — and earned himself an additional two laps in the Hole. Earmuffs …
8. Greg Biffle – 1999 Truck Series Championship – Intake manifold, 125-point fine
The Biff has been with the Cat in the Hat ever since the late Benny Parsons told Jack Roush he needed to take a look. During the 1999 Truck Series season, Biffle was in a tight points battle with Jack Sprague and Dennis Setzer, with Biffle having just won his ninth race of the season at Las Vegas – the biggest payout race of the season. He came into the race with a 125-point lead and left with a 10-point deficit to Sprague. The reason? An issue with the intake manifold – one Biffle and crew chief Randy Goss maintained was an off the shelf part they had been using all season long. The fine proved costly, as Biffle lost the championship by a scant 8 points. Biffle would rebound to win the Truck Series title in 2000, and his nine-win ’99 season remains a record in the series to this day.
7. Robby Gordon – 2007 Pennsylvania 500 – Suspended one race for disregarding a black flag
I’ve always said that NASCAR would be a better place if it had more drivers like Robby Gordon. He’s a throwback if there ever was one, leaving the comfy confines of RCR to start his own team in 2005. You’d be hard pressed to find a better driver when right turns are permitted, and such was the case when NASCAR went north of the border in 2007. Gordon was running the Busch Series NAPA 200 at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal when he got into it with Marcos Ambrose in the final laps, nerfing Ambrose and earning a black flag in the process. Instead of heeding a black flag, Robby kept his foot in it and assumed he had one the race. It was an awkward sight, seeing two cars perform victory burnouts – Kevin Harvick the official winner, and Robby Gordon who maintained that he won after the race. The next day, NASCAR suspended Gordon, not allowing him to drive in the Cup Series race at Pocono.
6. Kyle Busch – 2011 AAA 500 – Suspended one race for rough driving
What is it with Kyle Busch in Texas? It literally is checkers or wreckers with Kyle in the Lone Star State, and this incident with Ron Hornaday in 2011 is a perfect example. Truck regular Hornaday was in the midst of a title fight while Busch was running a truck for the team he owns with M&M’s sponsorship on the tailgate. On lap 15, Hornaday gets loose going around a lap truck, and forces Busch up into the wall. The caution comes out and Busch retaliates, driving Hornaday head-on into the wall, ending his night and title hopes. NASCAR parked Busch for the Cup race two days later in the middle of the Chase, was fined by his own team and received a final warning from sponsor M&M’s. Irony of ironies, Hornaday lost it and did the exact same thing this weekend at Rockingham to rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. who was driving the No. 54 Toyota that is normally Busch’s for Nationwide duty – but was a Joe Gibbs Racing truck. Oops.
5. Kurt Busch – 2012 Pocono 400 – Suspended one race for disrespecting media while on probation
What would a top 10 list of anything be without the best sound bite in NASCAR history? Kurt Busch had an up and down 2012 season. He was out at Penske and signed on with Phoenix Racing before the season started. They had decent equipment at Daytona, but wiped out four cars in the process. He had a top 10 going in the Southern 500 only to be felled by tire going down late — then engaged in a shouting match with Ryan Newman’s pit crew. That incident landed him on probation, which is when this incident with Bob Pockrass of The Sporting News occurred following a Nationwide race at Dover. Kurt was seated for the next race at Pocono. I know Kurt hates to dwell on the past, but this is top 10 material.
4. Carl Long – 2009 Winston Open – $200,000 fine/Banned from competition until paid
They say you can’t fight City Hall – and Carl Long is living proof. In 2009, Long was fined 200 points and $200,000 for an engine that was .17 cubic inches over the 358 limit – and down over 50 horsepower to the contending teams. The engine lasted all of three laps before Long was out of the event. Long was initially suspended for 12 weeks but was then reduced to eight; however since he has been unable to pay the four-year-old fine, he is not allowed to compete in the Cup Series in any capacity. He currently is a crew member in the Nationwide Series, but is still locked out of the Sprint Cup garage until he can pay the fine for his long deceased engine.
3. Jeremy Mayfield and Aaron Fike – Suspended indefinitely for drug use
Two of the sadder stories of the past decade involve two drivers who were once considered rising stars. Jeremy Mayfield was one of the up and coming drivers for Ford in the late 1990s before defecting to Dodge to help establish the groundwork for its 2001 return. After public criticism of team owner Ray Evernham’s personal affairs got him booted from the No. 19 Dodge midway through the 2006, he made a handful of starts for Bill Davis and tried to start his own team. In ’09, Mayfield was suspended for testing positive for methamphetamine. He has endured a host of legal and financial woes since, but maintains his innocence.
After Aaron Fike was working his way through the Truck and Busch series in the mid-2000s, and was sitting eighth in points in 2007 when he was arrested at an amusement park with his girlfriend, cooking up heroin in their car. He later admitted to having competed under the influence.
2. Curtis Turner – 1961 – Banned from competition for four years after supporting a driver’s union
Curtis Tuner is one of the most legendary figures in NASCAR history – more for the way he lived then for gaudy records or highlight-reel finishes. He was a lumber baron who drove cars because he liked to, not out of necessity. His parties were the thing of legend, often taking a break just long enough to go run the race – and then return to the house to get back at it. In 1961 however, he was seeking to protect his fellow drivers by attempting to organize a driver’s union along with fellow 2013 Hall of Fame nominee Tim Flock. This did not sit well with Big Bill France, who essentially banned both for life. The ban was rescinded after four years, during which time Turner built the Charlotte Motor Speedway – with the help of some creative financing and a Smith & Wesson to get the bulldozers rolling again.
1. Mark Martin – 1990 Winston Cup Championship – 46-point fine, Richmond
Under the new Chase points system, anything that happens in the first 26 races is often long forgotten by the time the final 10 events roll around. Under the system used from 1975-2003, it was a cumulative season-long fight with race No. 4 holding just as much value as race No. 30. In 1990, it would be the third race of the season that proved pivotal. A technical bulletin was issued that weekend with regards to welding and bolting a spacer plate to the intake manifold. Mark Martin’s No. 6 Ford passed inspection on three occasions that weekend without incident. It wasn’t until he won the race and Richard Childress phoned Bill France Jr., who was at home nursing a broken leg, protesting the win. As Jack Roush recounts, Childress made the claim to France, who was unaware of the bulletin and promised him that action would be taken. This was at a time when NASCAR was still leery of outsiders, and a Ford engineer who won championships in drag racing and SCCA road racing would meet that criteria — and Livonia, Mich., isn’t exactly North Wilkesboro, N.C. Martin and his Roush Racing team were fined 46 points and $30,000. He would ultimately fall short in the championship by 26 points to — who else? — the No. 3 Goodwrench team of Dale Earnhardt and Richard Childress.
by Vito Pugliese
Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese
Kansas Speedway was the site for one of the weirdest races of the year in 2012. On a newly paved surface with an unfamiliar tire compound, the race offered drama (Jimmie Johnson crashing), comedy (Danica Patrick attempting to wreck Landon Cassill, but wrecking herself instead) and action (Matt Kenseth stormed to the front late in the race – there is more on this below – to scoop up the surprise win).
Statistically, one race is really, really tough for information-gleaning purposes, but we can try. There are a few hot drivers leaving Texas, one under-the-radar performer last year at Kansas and a driver with a lot to lose, desperate for a sound Sunday run.
56.29% Kyle Busch is the most efficient passer in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a 56.29 percent passing efficiency.
The winner in two of the last three Cup Series races is Busch, who also happens to be the most adept navigator through traffic in the new Gen-6 car. Ironically, Texas, the site of his most recent win, served as the only reliable race in which his pass efficiency was negative — 44.12 percent — but he started on the pole and averaged a 1.58-place running position en route to a fairly easy victory. Two of his three best single-race efficiencies, 56.25 percent at Fontana and 55.91 percent at Las Vegas this season came large intermediate tracks on which high horsepower matters, not totally unlike Kansas.
42.5% Martin Truex Jr. led his first laps of 2013 at Texas, pacing the field for 42.5 percent of the race (142 laps).
He didn’t get the victory, but it was a strong showing for Truex, who has had a forgettable season thus far, finishing 24th or worse in three out of seven races. He heads to Kansas Speedway this weekend with two consecutive runner-up finishes, coming on both old and new pavement iterations of the track. There’s a caveat to that, though…
10.09 He finished second, but Truex only averaged a 10.09-place running position in last fall’s race at Kansas.
Truex is going to receive a lot of attention this week as a win favorite and a fantasy pick, but is the hype to be believed? He wasn’t nearly as polished on the freshly paved Kansas surface as he was on the old track. That 10.09 was the sixth-highest average running spot in a race that was caution-filled and as jumbled as your run-of-the-mill restrictor plate race. He might very well be a contender for the win on Sunday, but he isn’t nearly the lock as many will suggest.
128 Last fall’s Kansas race winner, Matt Kenseth, didn’t take the lead until lap 128. He led 78 laps on way to earning his only non-restrictor plate win of 2012.
I don’t think anyone expected Kansas to be a 1.5-mile version of Darlington. There were 14 cautions for 66 laps, meaning 24.7 percent of the race was run under caution. Patience was key and Kenseth’s approach to the race proved brilliant. None of the drivers that led in the first 100 laps of that race finished in the top 15. It’s not a guarantee that this kind of craziness will repeat itself, but understand that early leaders clearly aren’t impervious to adversity on this fast, frantic track.
It’s hard to believe that last year Kyle Busch went a whole season and won just once in NASCAR’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Trucks. Why? Two months into 2013, he’s on pace to win 28 times across the board, lead over 2,000 laps in Cup and shatter any Nationwide Series record he hasn’t already.
But it’s the average start for Busch this season, on the Cup side, that’s making the biggest difference. Armed with a league-leading 5.4-place average start, his latest pole became the crucial difference in a tit-for-tat battle with Martin Truex Jr. at Texas. That first stall, a huge advantage on any stop, got him out first on the race’s final caution and made the last few minutes a coronation for a man who’s come full circle. It was at this 1.5-mile oval one and a half years ago when a wreck with Ron Hornaday Jr. in the Truck Series got Busch parked, left sponsor M&M’s questioning it’s commitment and left one of the sport’s most aggressive drivers at a crossroads with Joe Gibbs Racing.
Now? As we awaken this Monday morning, it’s Hornaday involved in the middle of a Truck Series mess, accused of deliberately wrecking another competitor while Busch is sitting on top of the NASCAR world. Funny how things come full circle, right?
Let’s go “Through the Gears” on what we learned from a weekend in Fort Worth …
FIRST GEAR: Texas + Gen-6 = Tough Sledding
You know when the biggest story of a race weekend is a sponsorship issue that is raised before the start of the event, you’ve got a problem. Texas, while giving us some decent racing back in the pack, was every bit the snoozer Fontana was not. The Gen-6 car, credited for improving racing at intermediates in 2013, seemed to take a time machine that morphed it back into the Car of Tomorrow. The second a driver claimed clean air, it was all she wrote, as Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to lead 313 of 334 laps. The aero advantage was so pronounced, Truex admitted afterwards that dropping back to second was too much to overcome.
“The race was over when we got beat out of the pits,” Truex said. “The bottom was so fast for a couple laps and I was really worried, honestly, that I was going to lose second because Carl (Edwards) was on the inside of me. I was just somehow able to run (turns) one and two wide open and get him cleared. Just the guy that gets clean air is hard to get. It’s hard to catch (them) in 10 laps.”
Others, like Greg Biffle, used dreaded race-killer terms like “track position” and “aero” Sunday night on SPEED’s Wind Tunnel when describing their struggles to move through the field. Even a flurry of cautions for what seemed like nothing — only three of the seven were caused by accidents — did nothing to tighten a field that, at the 450-mile mark, had only 15 cars on the lead lap. It’s the latest reminder that the Gen-6 is not an automatic miracle worker; week-to-week, there will be some tracks where improvement takes time.
Texas is certainly one of those, which is unfortunate, considering its grandstand capacity produces a six-figure crowd. Goodyear would be prudent to hold a test there before the fall event in the Chase, to come up with a tire that has more pronounced falloff, produces slower speeds and helps reduce aero dependency. Too many drivers were running the same speed, lap after lap, with little chance of being able to gain on anyone else. That produces the single-file parade witnessed Saturday night that hopefully, fans won’t be victim to much more.
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1. NASCAR finding Texas race sponsor to be questionable fit
When Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage announced the naming rights to Saturday night's race, eyebrows were raised in circles far wider than those just in the NASCAR garage. That'll happen when you allow a political group on one side of this country's hottest political debate to stake it's name to an event broadcast on national TV.
The buzz over the National Rifle Association's sponsorship of the NRA 500 this week has picked up steam once again, and NASCAR released a statement Thursday that seemed to indicate that it will review such sponsorships in the future. Tracks procure naming rights deals themselves, but each are subject to approval from the sanctioning body.
“The NRA’s sponsorship of the event at Texas Motor Speedway fit within existing parameters that NASCAR affords tracks in securing partnerships,” said NASCAR spokesman David Higdon in a statement that also noted NASCAR takes no stand in the gun rights debate. “However, this situation has made it clear that we need to take a closer look at our approval process moving forward, as current circumstances need to be factored in when making decisions.”
NASCAR's review of the approval likely stems from how the sport is being viewed by outsiders and, perhaps more importantly, by new fans. But it's a fine line for the sport to walk that has a considerable section of the fan base — especially in Texas — who share the same political views of the NRA.
NASCAR can't afford to alienate both sides of this debate or any other. How it handles situations such as these will be quite fascinating to watch.
Meanwhile, Gossage thinks the scrutiny is overblown.
"The only questions are coming from less than 10 reporters," Gossage said Thursday. "The public isn't asking (us) questions."
2. Let's hope you like the Gen-6
Back on track, NASCAR made another interesting announcement Thursday during the half-day open test afforded to teams as a way to get a better handle on NASCAR's latest model. Basically, don't expect major rule changes on the Gen-6 platform anytime soon.
"I think we're in a fairly good spot," NASCAR Vice President of Competition Robin Pemberton said. "The teams — one of the things we've learned over the years is if you keep moving the targets, people have a tendency to … it's harder for them to keep chasing that. We feel like the playing field is fairly level."
After the small sample size of the latest two races for the Sprint Cup Series, shying from changes makes sense. Auto Club Speedway put on a show easily rivaling the best ever at the track for stock cars, and Martinsville Speedway seemed unfazed by the new body style. That's a good thing.
Pemberton's remarks bring the Gen-6 car nearly full circle after the sanctioning body used a test at Texas last fall at the track to narrow down what kind of speedway aerodynamic and mechanical package would be in use with the new car. That day, teams experimented with various levels of downforce and multiple tire combinations. Today's product isn't far from what the drivers tested that day.
"As long as the input is (that) it's still pretty rock solid as far as being positive, they've got plenty to work with. We feel like there's no reason to move the target on them right now," Pemberton said.
As you watch Saturday night's race and judge the Gen-6 on its third intermediate track visit of the season, remember that last year's spring Texas race was the impetus for many to wonder why NASCAR had lost the number of incidents and cautions everyone was used to. The caution flag waved just twice for 10 laps in last year's 334-lap event, both times for debris.
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit heads to the Lone Star state this weekend for the NRA 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes — A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Texas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag — or at least finishing toward the front:
1. Matt Kenseth
Among the favorites at Texas. He’s scored five consecutive top-5 finishes at that track, including a win in April 2011. He’s led 274 laps in those five races. He won at Las Vegas — a similar 1.5-mile oval — last month. Finished seventh at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway, which crew chief says was their worst race of the year.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Points leader has nine top 5s in 19 career starts at Texas, including a win last fall there. Led 48.4 percent of the laps run in both Texas races last season. Finished sixth at Las Vegas in the only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway this season. Coming off Martinsville victory.
3. Kasey Kahne
One of the hottest drivers on the circuit with four consecutive top-10 finishes. He placed second at Las Vegas (leading 114 laps), won at Bristol, took ninth at Auto Club Speedway and is coming off a fourth-place finish at Martinsville. Has two top 10s in his last three Texas starts.
4. Brad Keselowski
Finished second to Johnson in last fall’s race at Texas. It marked his first top-10 finish there in nine starts. Has finished worse than sixth only once this year. Placed third at Las Vegas in only race so far on a 1.5-mile speedway in 2013.
5. Clint Bowyer
Has four top-10 finishes in his last five Texas starts. Has three top-10 finishes this season but all have come on tracks 1 mile or less in length.
6. Kevin Harvick
Outside his 42nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, he’s finished between ninth and 14th in every race. He’s coming off a 13th-place finish — his third such finish in six races — last weekend at Martinsville. He finished ninth in both Texas races last year.
7. Jeff Gordon
Has two top 10s in his last seven Texas starts. Car seemed to be off at Las Vegas (where he was 25th) and Auto Club Speedway (11th) earlier this season.
8. Tony Stewart
Has two top 10s in his last six Texas starts but one was a win (Nov. 2011) and the other was a fifth-place finish in last fall’s race there. Struggled at Las Vegas with a late rally allowing him to finish 11th in only race so far at 1.5-mile track this season.
Ranking college football coaches is no easy task. Judging coaches simply on their record isn’t a true indicator of how successful they were at a particular program. Components such as resources, tradition, how the job stacks up against the rest of the conference and staff are valuable factors that are often lost in judging head coaches.
Athlon ranked all 125 college football coaches for 2013, with Alabama’s Nick Saban, Kansas State’s Bill Snyder and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer ranking as the top three.
However, on the other side of the rankings are a handful of coaches struggling to make their mark.
And considering there are 125 coaches, there’s plenty of bad options that just aren’t cut out to be a head coach.
With that in mind, Athlon is taking a look an in-depth look 10 coaches who rank near the bottom of the 125 rankings. Of course, these coaches don’t necessarily rank at the bottom of the 125 poll. Considering some coaches like Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck or Kent State’s Paul Haynes rank near the bottom of the 125 list and considering they are in their first season, it’s hard to consider them for this list. UMass’ Charley Molnar also deserves a pass, as the Minutemen are transitioning from the FCS to FBS level.
Put it this way, this is a list of 10 coaches we wouldn’t consider if we were the athletic director at any school needing to find a replacement for 2013.
College Football’s Top 10 Worst Coaches for 2013
Tim Beckman, Illinois
Considering Beckman’s 21-16 record in three years at Toledo, it’s hard to put him on this list. However, his one season at Illinois was simply a disaster. The Fighting Illini went 2-10, which included a 0-8 record in Big Ten play. While a transition can be expected under a new coaching, Illinois had too much talent returning to not win a game in conference play. Beckman made good adjustments to his staff this offseason, which should help the Fighting Illini improve their win total in 2013. However, if Illinois goes 2-10 or 3-9, there’s a good chance he won’t be back for 2014. Beckman deserves credit for his Toledo tenure, but a disastrous first season puts him on the list going into the 2013 campaign.
Norm Chow, Hawaii
Chow earned a lot of respect for his time as an assistant at BYU, NC State, USC, UCLA and Utah. However, he didn’t land his first head coaching opportunity until he was 65 years old. As a Hawaii native, Chow is a good fit for the Warriors, but his first season left a lot to be desired. The Warriors won just three games last season, and the only victory in conference play came against a struggling UNLV team. Hawaii has some nice pieces returning for 2013, so Chow could have the Warriors more competitive in the Mountain West. While it’s only Chow’s second season at Hawaii, the early signs are troubling for the Warriors.
Dan Enos, Central Michigan
Let’s give Dan Enos credit: He did get Central Michigan to a bowl game last year. However, the Chippewas were arguably the worst team to qualify for the postseason in recent memory. Central Michigan knocked off Iowa on the road, but its other four regular season wins in FBS play came against Akron, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and UMass – a combined 8-40 in 2012. Outside of last year’s 7-6 mark, Enos is just 6-18 as a head coach with the Chippewas. Enos made some gains last year, but we aren’t convinced he’s a top-tier coach in the MAC.
Bobby Hauck, UNLV
Hauck had a tremendous run at Montana, recording an 80-17 record in seven years. However, his tenure at UNLV has been a disaster. The Rebels are 6-32 under Hauck’s direction and have failed to exceed two victories in each season. UNLV has been a tough place to win at, so it’s hard to fault Hauck for everything that has transpired over the last three years. However, the Rebels really haven’t made a lot of progress and will be picked near the bottom of the Mountain West once again in 2013.
Tony Levine, Houston
Levine was tasked with a tough assignment when he was promoted to head coach, as Kevin Sumlin left big shoes to fill after a 12-1 season. Making matters worse for Levine was his lack of head coaching or coordinator experience, which certainly was tested after Houston’s 0-3 start. Levine served as a special teams coach under Sumlin and worked as an assistant special teams coach with the Panthers before coming to Houston. The Minnesota native was a curious promotion for a program that hit home runs with the hires of Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin. Levine was a popular hire among the players but still has much to prove after underachieving with a 5-7 record in 2012.
Doug Martin, New Mexico State
Considering the timing of DeWayne Walker’s departure to the NFL and New Mexico State’s conference situation, Martin is probably the best the Aggies could find in a head coach this season. The former Kentucky quarterback went 29-53 in seven years as Kent State’s head coach but never had a record over .500. It’s not easy to win at Kent State, but the Golden Flashes never showed much improvement under his watch. Martin is a good coordinator, but his lack of success at Kent State doesn’t bode well for his future at an even tougher place to win (New Mexico State).
Carl Pelini, FAU
Pelini’s debut at FAU had its share of highs and lows. He managed to avoid a disastrous loss to Wagner in the season opener and defeated Western Kentucky in mid-November. Despite losing nine games, the Owls did show some progress on the scoreboard in 2012, as three losses were by a touchdown or less. Considering how important recruiting is, hiring a coach that had no ties to Florida was a bizarre move for FAU. However, Pelini reeled in a class that ranked second in the Sun Belt according to Rivals.com. FAU faces a tougher road in Conference USA in 2013, and the roster was hit hard by departures on the offensive line and at quarterback. Pelini did some good things in his first year, but the jury is still out on just how successful he will be as a head coach.
Don Treadwell, Miami (Ohio)
As a former receiver at Miami (Ohio) and a successful stint at Michigan State as the team’s offensive coordinator, there was a lot of enthusiasm surrounding Treadwell’s hire in Oxford. However, Treadwell has fallen short of expectations in his first two years. The RedHawks recorded back-to-back 4-8 seasons and finished 2012 by losing six out of their last seven games. Treadwell inherited a team that won 10 games in 2010 and had quarterback Zac Dysert - a likely selection in the 2013 NFL Draft - leading his offense. Treadwell has a solid resume, so there’s a good chance he can turn Miami (Ohio) back into a consistent winner. However, eight wins in two years at a program with a lot of tradition is enough to earn Treadwell a spot on this list.
Ron Turner, FIU
FIU made a colossal mistake when it decided to fire Mario Cristobal and replace him with Ron Turner. Although Turner has experience as a head coach on the collegiate level, his overall record at Illinois was 35-57. Over his last three seasons with the Fighting Illini, Turner recorded a 9-26 record, which included a horrendous 1-11 campaign in 2001. In fairness, Illinois isn’t the easiest job in the Big Ten. However, Turner went to just two bowl games and had only one winning season in Big Ten play. For a program that averaged just 13,634 fans at each home game in 2012, hiring a 59-year-old retread coach is simply a bad idea.
Charlie Weis, Kansas
After the failed two-year stint under Turner Gill, Weis was a strange hire for Kansas. The New Jersey native certainly isn’t a long-term answer for the program, especially after going 16-21 in his final three years at Notre Dame. While the Fighting Irish aren’t as dominant as they were in the past, it’s unacceptable to have two losing seasons over a three-year period. The Jayhawks were winless in Big 12 play last season and lost non-conference games against Rice and Northern Illinois. Although Kansas was more competitive in Big 12 games than it was in 2011, the Jayhawks are still clearly the league’s worst team. Making matters worse for Weis is a heavy reliance on junior college prospects in 2013. There’s a good chance Kansas will hit on a few impact transfers, but it’s risky to not build around freshmen. Weis clearly ranks at the bottom of Big 12 coach rankings.
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Ranking All 125 College Football Coaches for 2013
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Big Ten Coach Rankings for 2013
Big 12 Coach Rankings for 2013
Pac-12 Coach Rankings for 2013
SEC Coach Rankings for 2013
I hope you all enjoyed restrictor plate action (or in this year’s case, inaction), short track madness and whatever it is we’re calling Fontana now, because all of that is in the rearview mirror. The intermediate tracks, referred to by some fans as “cookie cutters,” provide a semblance of statistical normalcy. Speed and strategy reins on these 1.5- and 2-milers, and while last year’s fall race at Texas Motor Speedway — this weekend’s destination — was an action-packed affair, the top finishers at these tracks are anything but random. We know who the key players will be, thanks to their statistical history on the tracks that comprise the bulk of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule.
This week’s statistical cavalcade bridges Martinsville, where Jimmie Johnson showcased his short track mastery, to Texas, a track favored by a certain blue oval-backed racing organization.
69.2% Jimmie Johnson led a whopping 346 laps (69.2 percent of the race) last Sunday at Martinsville, en route to this eighth win at the facility.
We are used to Johnson’s sheer dominance on the half-mile paperclip-shaped track, but in seven previous wins he never threw down a performance like the one witnessed last weekend. It was a showing of team strength and driving expertise. As he did last fall, Johnson departs Martinsville’s Victory Lane for Texas, where he won following an exciting late-race battle with Brad Keselowski.
64.56% Danica Patrick recorded her best single-race passing efficiency, winning 64.56 percent of her pass encounters in her debut race at Martinsville.
The 12th-place finish was aided by her plus-passing — her pass differential for the day was plus-23 — after starting from the rear of the field due to an engine change. On a track that isn’t often kind to first-time racers (ask Ricky Stenhouse), Patrick had, arguably, her best Cup Series performance to date.
5.700 In the 10 CoT races that took place at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth amassed a series-high 5.700 Production in Equal Equipment Rating.
A beacon of consistency in the Lone Star State, Kenseth has finished ninth or better in nine of the last 10 races for an incredible 6.2-place average finish (backed by an amazingly consistent 5.5 finish deviation). Strangely, his average green-flag speed and his finishes at TMS don’t often coalesce; the one time he had the fastest car at Texas, he won (April 2011), but it is more typical that he radically out-performs his equipment, like his fourth-place finish last fall while averaging the 10th-best green-flag speed, or under-performs, like his ninth-place score while averaging the fourth-fastest speed in the spring of 2008.
Joey Logano. Tony Stewart. Denny Hamlin. Clint Bowyer. Jeff Gordon. The list of NASCAR drivers ticked off, for one reason or another, entering Martinsville could even knock the former Jersey Shore castmates down a peg. Add in a half-mile paperclip oval — one of the sport’s best — two weeks to ponder what’s gone wrong and Sunday was supposed to be an all-out explosion of revenge.
Instead? I’ve seen senior center bingo arguments come off with more energy than how it all panned out. (I guess maybe that’s what you get when a 54-year-old steps into Hamlin’s seat?) For all those expecting fireworks of historic proportions, somebody forgot to tell the watchman responsible for lighting that fuse.
Part of the problem was that some of these drivers never even got close to one another. Logano and Stewart, for example, had just a handful of opportunities where they were racing bumper-to-bumper. But in a sport where the championship — or more accurately, the playoff — is front and center, drivers are thinking about consequences even early in the season. Just like Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson won’t show their cards now when the results matter less, there’s no reason for a struggling Stewart to risk wiping himself out, digging a deeper hole to climb up when it comes to what really matters for paying sponsors: the Chase.
Such is the nature of the NASCAR beast these days. Bottom lines mean every race can’t turn out like your wildest dreams — matching the sanctioning body’s hype — as drivers sometimes choose to use their head over their heart. It’s a shame, though. Most times, this race at Martinsville, with plenty of action throughout the pack, would get itself a “B” grade or better without hesitation. But we’re in 2013, which is quickly becoming a year of high expectations. A race at one of the best tracks on the schedule should be an automatic A-plus under the circumstances.
Anything less? Feels like a missed opportunity … even though the “temper, temper” moments could well come back into play this fall.
Let’s go through the gears…
ONE: Jimmie Johnson owns Martinsville.
For exceptional athletes, there’s always one venue that fits their style better than any other. Tiger Woods has Augusta, Roger Federer has a set of tennis courts in Queens and Michael Jordan once thrived in Madison Square Garden.
For Jimmie Johnson, that magical place is Martinsville, Va. With eight victories in 23 career starts, third to only Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip, the half-mile oval launch his performances into another stratosphere. Sixteen times he’s finished top 5 or better, and a 34.7 percent winning clip basically guarantees a victory once every year and a half there. Considering 43 Cup competitors start each race and those types of odds happen oh, about next to never.
“His car is so much better than everybody else,” explained sixth-place finisher Brad Keselowski, “That he just plays with everybody the whole race just to make it look good.”
No one encapsulated this day any better. Even when Johnson was being challenged by Martinsville 0-fers Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, the vibe still leaned his way. Not once for a single lap did the No. 48 put itself in position to run outside the top 5, simple history dictating the track would eventually come to him.
“It’s probably the most calm, relaxed thought-out weekend that we've had as the 48,” said the winner. “We really fell back on our experience and stayed committed to that.”
The end result now sees Johnson with 14,000 laps led overall in the Cup Series, a career best 2,327 of them at Martinsville. In comparison, peer Jamie McMurray, a six-time Cup winner in his own right, has led just 1,416 laps during his whole career. It seems between pit road, crew chief strategy and driver ability, this short track brings out the best in the five-time champ – the sport’s new points leader, to boot.
SECOND: See Hendrick go. See Gibbs go. See everyone else watch and get jealous.
The new Gen-6 car, while promoting parity, is bound to be figured out by a few organizations quicker than most. A look at Sunday’s laps-led totals reaffirm the answer: 2013 is developing into Hendrick, Gibbs and then every man for himself.
Only Marcos Ambrose, who led lap 1 and Travis Kvapil, who paced the field a single lap under yellow, broke the 498-lap spell up front rotated by HMS’ Jimmie Johnson, JGR veteran Kyle Busch and newcomer Matt Kenseth. But their performances are far from one-hit wonders. This trio, along with JGR’s Denny Hamlin and HMS’ Kasey Kahne, make up the top 5 in laps led on the circuit, six races into a young season.
Yes, Roush Fenway Racing’s Carl Edwards has a win at Phoenix. And Brad Keselowski over at Penske Racing has kept up that championship consistency. But by and large, the teams showing the most strength these days are coming squarely out of two race shops. Of the seven drivers, Kenseth, has been the most surprising, leading more laps at Martinsville Sunday – one of his worst tracks – then in his 13-year career at the track up to that point. If they can make him into a contender here, that bodes well for the 1.5-mile ovals right in his wheelhouse coming up next.
Louisville had overcome a 12-point deficit against Wichita State, but a questionable call in the final 10 seconds helped seal the Cardinals' win in the Final Four and a trip to the national title game.
Luke Hancock, who was one of Louisville's heroes with 20 points, missed a free throw with 8.8 seconds left. Wichita State's Ron Baker grabbed the rebound, and Hancock clutched for the ball. After the two players wrestled for the ball, Baker passed to teammate Malcolm Armstead.
Before Armstead took possession, officials called for a held ball, which kept the ball in Louisville's possession. The call denied Wichita State a chance to take a potential game-tying three-point shot.
Here is the call on video, judge for yourself:
With the flurry of press releases that were flying about last Friday, with the announcements and retractions regarding Mark Martin substituting for the injured Denny Hamlin, it brought to light one issue we haven’t had to tackle in a while: NASCAR Super Subs. They can be much more than a wheel holder, and often end up becoming a larger part of the team. It can be an audition for a future ride, or a once-in-a-lifetime shot at greatness. This week we present the Top 10 Super Subs in NASCAR:
1. Tiny Lund for Marvin Panch — 1963 Daytona 500
Before Chrysler’s Hemis were running roughshod around Daytona, it was Ford that ruled the roost at Daytona. Marvin Panch was the Wood Brothers driver in the No. 21 that year, and was competing in a sports car race not unlike today’s Rolex 24 at Daytona. He was involved in an accident that saw his Ford-powered Maseratti flipped over and engulfed in flames. Fellow driver and friend Tiny Lund (who stood 6’5 and 270 lbs) saw this happen and ran to the scene, wrestling Panch from the wreckage. Panch, burned and hospitalized, insisted that Lund, who was shopping around for a ride, be his replacement driver in the 500. Tiny did not disappoint, leading 17 laps and the first of five Fords across the finish line to win the Daytona 500. Lund was also awarded the Carnagie medal for heroisim, for risking his life to save Panch.
2. David Pearson for Dale Earnhardt – 1979 Southern 500
David Pearson will perhaps be best known as the driver of the No. 21 Purolator sponsored Wood Brothers Mercury and Fords of the 1970s (even though he won his three championships and over half of his wins driving for Cotton Owens and Holman-Moody). But following a botched pit stop at the 1979 Rebel 500 at Darlington, Pearson split from the Wood Brothers and hooked up with newcomer Rod Osterlund, piloting his No. 2 – gulp – Chevrolet, subbing for his injured rookie driver, Dale Earnhardt. With Jake Elder turning the wrenches, the team was instantly a contender. In their four races together with Pearson they posted a second at Talladega, fourth at Michigan, seventh at Bristol and capped it off with a win at Pearson’s best and home state track — and the site where everything went wrong a few months earlier — the Southern 500 in Darlington, SC.
3. Jamie McMurray for Sterling Marlin — 2002 GM-UAW 500 at Charlotte
2002 was the year that Jamie McMurray became a race car driver for real. While running a full-schedule as a Busch Series regular with the No. 27 Brewco Motorsports team, he was eighth in points, yet over 600 markers out of the lead. On the Cup side, Sterling Marlin was enjoying a career year, leading the points through race No. 29 of 36 at Kansas, when he sustained a “broke neck” (as Sterling would say) in an accident. McMurray was tabbed to fill the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge in the interim and after an unremarkable 26th-place finish at Talladega, the youngster broke through to win the very next week at Charlotte in only his second Cup Series start.
4. Dale Jarrett, Robert Yates Racing — 1995
While Ernie Irvan was battling to keep alive and recover following the injuries he sustained in a crash at Michigan in 1994, Robert Yates Racing was tasked with keeping the operation afloat. It had been almost exactly the year before when they lost Davey Allison following a helicopter accident in Talladega. RYR had tried a host of substitute drivers during the ’93 and ’94 seasons (Robby Gordon, Lake Speed, Kenny Wallace). In 1995, they opted for a full-time fill-in with some credentials — among them a Daytona 500 win in 1992. Dale Jarrett’s audition was a steady one; in a year that saw Chevrolet’s new Monte Carlo beating up on the competition, Jarrett posted a win at Pocono, nine top 5s and 14 top 10s. Irvan returned to the Texaco car in ’96, but Jarrett had earned his rightful place in RYR’s No. 88 — and another Daytona 500 win started the season. Thus began one of the most successful driver and team tandems of the last 20 years.
5. Tommy Kendall for Kyle Petty – Sonoma, 1991
Back before he was the master of unfiltered honesty and analysis, Kyle Petty was a pretty fair race car driver who was coming into his own in the early 1990s. Driving for Felix Sebates, Petty was off to a career year in ’91, when he broke his leg in a nasty crash at Talladega in May. This was during a time when “road course ringers” were all the rage at Cup races for teams needing a good finish or owners looking to cash in on left-turn-only guys’ inexperience. Tommy Kendall was one of the premier road racers in the world at the time, and was tabbed to sub for the injured Petty. Kendall was trying to hold off Mark Martin with two laps to go, but took him out and succumbed to a cut tire from his action. The events ended up handing the win to Davey Allison, after Ricky Rudd took out Ernie Irvan coming to take the white flag. Kendall would suffer his own injuries just a few weeks later at Watkins Glen in an IMSA GTU race, nearly cost him both of his legs. Although Kendall would later win three straight TransAm titles for Jack Roush, it was this incident with Martin that prevented him from ever getting a NASCAR ride in one of Jack’s Fords.
6. Darrell Waltrip for Steve Park – 1998 Pocono 500
In the late 1990s, Darrell Waltrip was at a bit of a crossroads. His Western Auto-sponsored team went belly up, he sold the operation to an owner who would eventually turn out to be a tax felon and he was reduced to substitute roles for the likes of Todd Bodine and a rookie named Steve Park. Park was severely injured during a practice crash at Atlanta in 1998, and team owner Dale Earnhardt Sr. needed a veteran driver to keep his fledgling DEI operation going to satisfy sponsor Pennzoil. Enter proto-enemy Waltrip. DW subbed for 13 races — needing to use a Champion’s Provisional to make it into four of them – but once the races started, it became clear that placing a proven champion in decent equipment with a young team could pay dividends. Included in the partnership was this near-win at Pocono. “Boogity, Boogity, Boogity” might get a little old, but this clip never fails to tug at the heart strings.
7. Kenny Wallace for Steve Park –Rockingham, 2001
2001 was supposed to be NASCAR’s greatest season with a new network television contract that, after 50 years, proved NASCAR was finally on par with the NFL, MLB and NBA on the national stage. On the final lap of its greatest race, however, it lost its greatest driver in Dale Earnhardt Sr. The team he owned, Dale Earnhardt, Inc., suffered further disaster early in the year when Steve Park was critically injured in a freak accident under caution in a Busch Grand National race at Darlington. Kenny Wallace, known to most as the animated analyst on SPEED, was tabbed to substitute for Park in the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevrolets for 12 races. It nearly came together for the outfit at Rockingham in October — the site of Park’s last win in February — when Wallace put it on the pole and led for 101 laps only to be passed by Joe Nemechek late in the going, coming home second.
8. Robby Gordon for Mike Skinner – 2001 New Hampshire 300
Before Jimmie Johnson was wheeling the Lowe’s Chevrolet to five straight championships, it was Mike Skinner who carried the colors for the home improvement giant for Richard Childress Racing. After suffering a concussion at Chicagoland in 2001, he was injured again later in the year and missed the last seven races. Robby Gordon filled in for Skinner starting at Watkins Glen and had the race well in hand until NBC’s in-car camera battery blew up and smoked him out of the cockpit, forcing Gordon to pull over and bail. In the final race of the year, a rescheduled Loudon event stemming from 9/11, Gordon earned the first Cup win of his career. And he did so in grand fashion, nerfing Jeff Gordon out of the way with 15 laps to go, similar to the bump ‘n’ run that Gordon used on Rusty Wallace a couple of times at Bristol. Robby Gordon would go on to drive RCR’s No. 31 Chevy from 2002-04.
9. Mark Martin for Ernie Irvan — 1994 Food City 250
Mark Martin is not new to this substitute-driving thing. In 1994, following Ernie Irvan’s aforementioned Michigan crash, Martin helped his friend out by running his Busch Grand National car in the August event at Bristol. Martin qualified 17th and brought it home in 10th position. Upon Irvan’s return that saw him wearing a patch over one eye, Martin paid Irvan perhaps the ultimate compliment: “Ernie driving with one eye is still better than most of these guys with two.”
10. Jimmy Hensely for Alan Kulwicki – 1992
Monday marked the 20th anniversary of the passing of Alan Kulwicki. The 1992 Winston Cup champion, along with three others, was killed in a plane crash in ’93 following a sponsor event in East Tennessee. While his team transporter circled Bristol and took the checkered flag before exiting, it returned a week later at North Wilkesboro, with assistance from Felix Sabates. Jimmy Hensley would take over driving duties on ovals, while Tommy Kendall filled in on road courses. Hensley performed admirably, posting a pair of top 10s under what were near-impossible circumstances. Kulwicki had identified Hensely as the amn he wanted to take over for him should anything ever happen. It was an odd choice, as Hensely did not know Kulwicki personally. He would tell legendary journalist Tom Higgins, “Every time I saw Alan, especially at racetracks, he appeared to be concentrating so hard and was so deep in thought that I didn't want to bother him — I didn't want to interrupt.”
1. Back to the scene of the (original) crime
With the he-said, he-said war of words and fenders that Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin have participated in during the last three weeks, it's been easy to forget that the final laps of Martinsville's spring race one year ago was the ultimate catalyst for last season's most-talked about rivalry.
After Jeff Gordon (329 laps) and Jimmie Johnson (111) combined to lead well over four-fifths of last year's event, the inevitable happened when a caution flag waved with just two laps remaining. The race now headed for a green-white-checkered overtime finish, Johnson and Gordon both hoped to scoot away on the restart and battle for the win amongst themselves.
They didn't even make it through Turn 1.
Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman charged low on the restart with Bowyer trying to block Newman. The move shot Bowyer over the Turn 1 curbing and directly in the side of Gordon. The contact forced Gordon into Johnson, sending both spinning into a mess of wrecked race cars piling in from behind.
Newman eventually found his way to improbable victory while Gordon, especially, steamed at Bowyer's late race antics. Those emotions, of course, boiled over in Phoenix many months later when Gordon took exception to another round of contact from Bowyer and intentionally wrecked the No. 15 to instigate a garage-area fracas. Logano was also collected.
Martinsville could serve as the next best place for Bowyer to return Gordon's favor — if he's still thinking retribution — or a great place for Logano to ruffle even more feathers with a payback to the No. 24. Whatever happens, perennial Martinsville favorite Johnson is concerned that the rough 'em up style Martinsville is known for could cause more problems than normal.
"With the new race cars, I think contact is going to be a question mark for me," Johnson says. "We have fiberglass panels and stuff, now, where it used to all be steel. I’ve seen some crash damage after just a small impact where they had to cut the nose completely off the car. So that could be the issue come race time there. Some minor contact could cause major cosmetic damage."
We'll have to wait to see if his concerns ring true.
In the 12 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races that took place at Martinsville Speedway during the Car of Tomorrow era, two drivers won nine races: Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin. It is a track that rewards its best competitors more reliably than other tracks do with top-performing drivers, making the event somewhat of a cinch to prognosticate. Granted each race, especially in the current ultra-competitive Cup Series landscape, is subject to a heavy dose of randomness, past performance at Martinsville does, more often than not, indicate future success.
So a hint at who Sunday’s key players will be shines through past statistics. Here is a glimmer of what we all will be seeing — and in one notable case, missing — in this weekend’s rough-and-tumble race at Martinsville.
6.208, 1,111 and 4 What are we going to miss from Sunday’s race? A driver who ranks second at Martinsville in Production in Equal Equipment Rating (PEER) with a 6.208 rating, has led 1,111 laps and won four races.
Denny Hamlin’s absence impacts this race in a major way. Not only is he a race win contender, Martinsville is arguably one of his two best racetracks (Richmond is the other), in terms of production. With him sidelined due to injury, it opens the door for other good Martinsville drivers that have been on the cusp of winning in recent events there. One of them is a household name.
9 and 0 Jeff Gordon earned nine top-5 finishes in 12 CoT races. Zero of those finishes were victories.
Gordon ranks third in PEER with a 4.958 rating — PEER being a measure of a driver’s on-track production in an “all equipment even” scenario. That mark is crazy high considering he was unable to seal the deal in all those races. For the better part of the last six years, Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson were bestowed the crowns as kings of Martinsville; however, Gordon, despite the lack of wins, is also befitting of the throne.
1,309 Gordon has led 1,309 laps across the last 12 races at Martinsville.
That is absolutely absurd. It means he has led just over 21 percent of all laps there the last six seasons. That kind of dominance isn’t for the feint of heart; in eight of those races he led at least 90 laps. Yes, when the lap counts are high — Martinsville is a 500-lap race — the laps-led totals are inflated, but his 1,309 total laps led is the second most in the series over that span and noteworthy because, again, he won nary a race in all those dominant outings. He may be overdue.
3.93 and 3.62 Clint Bowyer averaged running positions of 3.93-place and 3.62-place in last year’s races at Martinsville.
Disappointingly, Bowyer finished 10th and fifth, respectively, in those races. His attempted pass for the lead in the waning laps of last year’s spring race took out Johnson and Gordon, but outside of that, he has been a pleasant (and quiet) producer at Martinsville throughout his career. His 2.708 track-specific PEER ranks seventh out of 54 drivers and he is one of five drivers with at least eight top-10 finishes in the last 12 races there.
12.67 Mark Martin, replacing Hamlin in the No. 11 for Joe Gibbs Racing, has averaged just under a 13th-place (12.67, to be exact) finish in his six CoT-era finishes at Martinsville.
Hamlin he ain’t, but Martin is not half bad at a track that, in a perfect world (for him, that is a partial schedule), he would elect to skip each year. He finished as high as second during that time frame while driving for Hendrick Motorsports and also secured three other top-10 results. He’ll need to redeem himself from his most recent outing there, which was a 28th-place finish that saw him earn a poor 44.7 percent passing efficiency along with a 21st-place average running position.
No one ever wants to see anyone suffer an injury in anyway. But when superior athletes are moving at unrealistic speeds and in bizarre ways, unnatural things are bound to happen to the body. Sunday evening, Louisville hoopster Kevin Ware suffered one of the worst possible leg injuries many have ever seen in sports. Fans, coaches and players of all teams are thinking about him, his family and the Cardinals basketball squad. Needless to say, we all wish him a speedy and healthy recovery.
Below are some videos of some of sports most horrific injuries that we can remember. Some you will know about — Lawrence Taylor breaking Joe Theismann's leg, for example — and some you may have never seen. It's not for the squimmish and proceed at your own risk.
Kevin Ware, Louisville
Shaun Livingston, LA Clippers
The Clippers guard completely destroyed his knee in February of 2007 against the Charlotte Bobcats. After rumors of a potential amputated, Livingston eventually rehabbed his way back into the NBA. He has played for six teams since and is averaging 7.3 points per game this year.
Sid Vicious, Wrestling
After nearly a two-decade career in the WWF, including a championship, Vicious jumped off the top rope in 2001 and snapped his left leg. He did return to wrestling but only as a supporting cast and has sued WCW for the incident.
Joe Thiesmann, Washington
The famous compound fracture suffered by the Redskins quarterback in November of 1985 ended his career. The injury forced his retirement as Theismann would never throw a pass again.
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
Lattimore missed much of the 2011 season with a torn ACL in his left knee. After a furious rehab, he returned to the field as, once again, one of the nation's top backs in 2012. However, against Tennessee he suffered a horrific injury to his other knee. He is currently working to get his NFL career on track and all signs point to him being ready to play this fall.
Moises Alou, Montreal
Long-time MLB vet shattered his ankle in 1993 rounding first base and trying to stop. After rehab, Alou lost his speed but played for 15 more seasons in the majors.
Starting Pitchers throwing out arms
Pitching is one of the most unnatural movements the human body can endure and shoulders, arms and elbows seem to pay the price. Here are a few that come to mind.
Willis McGahee, Miami
The 2002 National Championship was on the line when Miami and Ohio State played in the title game. McGahee's knee was destroyed on this tackle, yet, the Hurricanes runner was still drafted in the first round and went on to have an excellent NFL career.
Matt Henry, Manitoba
Manitoba Bison running back Matt Henry breaks off a long run and then suffers a sevier leg injury in the Vanier Cup.
Tyrone Prothro, Alabama
Alabama's do-everything play-maker catches a long touchdown pass against Florida in 2005. The injury ended his breakout junior season and it unfortunately ended the young star's career.
DeAndre Brown, Southern Miss
One of the nation's top recruits in 2008, Brown broke onto the scene with a huge freshman season. However, that season ended with a broken right leg in the bowl game and his career went down hill afterwards.
Patrick Edwards, Houston
As a freshman in 2008 for Houston, Edwards already had 634 yards and four touchdowns before playing Marshall. He ran through the endzone at full speed to make a big catch before hitting some endzone equipment and suffering a compound fracture in his leg. He returned to play three full successful seasons for the Cougars.
Tim Krumrie, San Francisco
Bengals star defensive lineman Tim Krumrie suffers a lower leg injury in what might be the worst Super Bowl injury of all time.
Freshmen have led teams to national championships. They’ve won National Player of the Year honors and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Even more rookies have gone on to be top picks in the NBA Draft.
Kentucky’s Anthony Davis did all those things in a single season in Lexington. That's why he tops our list of the greatest freshman seasons.
Here are Athlon Sports’ picks for the top 10 greatest freshman seasons:
1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky 2011-12
Stats: 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Davis didn’t simply have one of the best freshman seasons in college basketball history -- he had one of the best seasons of any player. If there was an award to be won or honor to receive, Davis earned it. He was the consensus national player of the year, a unanimous All-American, the national defensive player of the year and the Final Four Most Outstanding Player. After leading Kentucky to its eighth national title and first championship since 1998, Davis was the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft. The only other players to win the Naismith Award, the Final Four MOP and then be selected first overall in the draft all the in the same season were Kansas’ Danny Manning and. UCLA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. With a 7-foot-four wingspan, Davis was a defensive force, setting an NCAA freshman record and Kentucky record with 186 blocks.
2. Kevin Durant, Texas 2006-07
Stats: 25.8 points, 11.1 rebounds
His case for top freshman: In the first season impacted by the NBA’s rule to require draftees to be a year removed from high school, Durant showed what a new breed of precocious freshmen could do in college. He swept the National Player of the Year awards and remains the only freshman to do so. In his only college season, Durant was the only player in the country to finish in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding – he finished fourth in both. Despite Durant’s prolific season, his play didn’t translate to postseason success. Texas lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to USC, led by another freshman, O.J. Mayo. The Longhorns also couldn’t solve Kansas, who won the Big 12 regular season title and defeated the Longhorns in the Big 12 Tournament final in overtime. Durant was the second pick in the 2007 NBA Draft behind the oft-injured one-and-done Greg Oden.
3. Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse 2002-03
Stats: 22.2 points, 10 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Some freshman-led teams have come close, but Anthony became the first rookie since Pervis Ellison in 1986 (Louisville) to lead his team to a national title. Anthony was a second-team All-American in his only college season, but none were better in the NCAA Tournament. Anthony was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, helping Jim Boeheim to his first national championship. In the final against Kansas, Anthony scored 20 points with 10 rebounds and seven assists. A game earlier in the national semifinal against Texas, Anthony had 33 points and 14 rebounds. His elite play led Syracuse to a title, but it wasn’t limited to March. During the regular season, Anthony finished with 22 double-doubles, the most for a freshman since Virginia’s Ralph Sampson in 1980.
4. Chris Jackson, LSU 1988-89
Stats: 30.2 points, 2.5 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Jackson, who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, turned in one of the all-time best freshman seasons nearly two decades before it became commonplace for first-year players to rewrite record books. Jackson averaged 30.2 points per game, which remains a Division I freshman record. It also remains the seventh-highest scoring average in SEC history. Since Jackson’s freshman season, only two SEC players have topped 25 points per game in a season – Jackson as a sophomore, and LSU’s Shaquille O’Neal in 1991-92. Jackson finished the season as a consensus All-American, but the Tigers lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to UTEP.
5. Wayman Tisdale, Oklahoma 1982-83
Stats: 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Tisdale was the forefather to the great freshmen of the 2000s. It’s fitting, then, his name is on the National Freshman of the Year award. In 1983, Tisdale was the first freshman to be a first-team All-American while also earning Big Eight Player of the Year honors. He accomplished both feats again as a sophomore and a junior.
6. Kevin Love, UCLA 2007-08
Stats: 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: During better times for Ben Howland at UCLA, the coach relied primarily on veterans. Love was the exception during the Bruins’ run of Final Fours. Love led UCLA in scoring and rebounding in the Bruins’ last of three consecutive appearances in the national semifinal. He also finished the season with 23 double-doubles; Michael Beasley is the only other freshman to amass more. Love was a consensus All-American and the Pac-10 Player of the Year, one of only two freshmen to earn the honor.
7. Michael Beasley, Kansas State 2007-08
Stats: 26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Like Durant’s college career, some of his Big 12 records didn’t last long. A year after Durant lit up the Big 12, Beasley did the same a year later. Beasley set a Big 12 single-season record by averaging 26.2 points per game, breaking Durant’s record of 25.8. Beasley finished with 13 30-point games, the most for any Big 12 player in a season (Durant had 11). Beasley’s 28 double-doubles also remains a national freshman record. Unlike Durant, Beasley didn’t pick up any National Player of the Year awards – that hardware in 2008 went to North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. Like Durant and Texas, Beasley and Kansas State failed to get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, losing to Wisconsin in the second round.
8. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State 2010-11
Stats: 17.2 points, 10.2 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Ohio State has had more success with star freshmen in recent years than any other Big Ten team. Sullinger may have been the best of a group that includes Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. Unlike Oden, Conley and big men B.J. Mullens and Kosta Koufos, Sullinger elected to stay for his sophomore season. As a freshman, Sullinger was a consensus All-American and the Big Ten’s first National Freshman of the Year since Michigan’s Chris Webber in 1992. Though Ohio State spent the entire season ranked in the top four, Sullinger and the Buckeyes finished their season in the Sweet 16 with a loss to Kentucky.
9. Derrick Rose, Memphis 2007-08
Stats: 14.9 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds
His case for top freshman: Hard to believe as it is, Rose wasn’t the most decorated player on his own team as a freshman. That distinction went to All-American and Conference USA Player of the Year Chris Douglas-Roberts. Rose belongs on this list, though, as the point guard of a team that played for a national title before falling 75-68 in overtime to Kansas. Rose averaged 20.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game in the NCAA Tournament, but his missed free throws late in regulation of the title game sealed Memphis’ fate. Months later, Rose was the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.
10. John Wall, Kentucky 2009-10
Stats: 16.6 points, 6.5 assists, 4.3 rebounds
His case for top freshman: John Calipari started at Kentucky the same way he finished his time at Memphis – with an elite one-and-done point guard. Wall followed in the footsteps of Rose and Tyreke Evans at Memphis and preceded Brandon Knight and Marquis Teague at Kentucky. In leading Kentucky to a 35-3 season, Wall was the National Freshman of the Year and the Associated Press and coaches’ pick for SEC Player of the Year (Oddly enough, teammate DeMarcus Cousins was the coaches’ pick for SEC Freshman of the Year). Wall was blocked for most National Player of the Year awards by Ohio State’s Evan Turner, but Wall did earn the Adolph Rupp Trophy. Go figure.
Honorable mention: Greg Oden, Ohio State 2006-07
Stats: 15.7 points, 9.6 rebounds
His case for top freshman: For a least a year, Oden vs. Durant was a heated debate. Durant was the consensus Player of the Year, but Oden and fellow freshman Mike Conley Jr. helped Ohio State reach the national championship game. Oden ended up going first in the NBA Draft, but it was the last time he’d have the edge over Durant, who became an NBA superstar while Oden’s pro career has been derailed by injuries. As a college player, Oden holds the distinction of being the only freshman to win National Defensive Player of the Year honors by averaging 9.6 rebounds and 3.3 blocks per game.
Whether it's turnover in Toronto, sophomore superstars, or Dodger dollars, there's no shortage of storylines coming this 2013 baseball season. To get you up to speed before opening day, here's a look at everything you need to know.
1. Oh, Canada!
We could probably fill this story with 15 things to watch about the Toronto Blue Jays alone. This team begs for attention, from so many angles, and we know that at least one country will be watching closely. Rival executives have long believed that Canada’s only baseball team, backed by the Rogers Communications fortune, was a sleeping giant. Now, the Blue Jays are wide awake, with emerging young talent (Brett Lawrie), steady veterans (Mark Buehrle), power hitters (Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion) and speedsters (Jose Reyes and Emilio Bonifacio). The Jays could have as many as three aces around Buehrle, who was part of the bounty that general manager Alex Anthopoulos extracted from the Miami Marlins in a November blockbuster. Brandon Morrow has some of the best stuff in the league, Josh Johnson is a former ERA champion, and R.A. Dickey just won the National League Cy Young Award for the Mets. The bullpen is loaded with power arms. The folksy and fiery John Gibbons is back as manager after four years away. And — oh, by the way — the revamped lineup includes Melky Cabrera, who gained a measure of infamy last season when he flunked a steroids test shortly after winning the MVP award at the All-Star Game. The San Francisco Giants refused to activate Cabrera during the postseason, yet won it all in his absence. Cabrera, who cashed in with the Jays for two years and $16 million, would be worth watching wherever he went, to see if he’s anything more than a league-average player without the juice. Here, though, he’s just one storyline on a team that seems poised to take advantage of an AL East that, for the first time in two decades, could be theirs for the taking.
2. Sophomore Stars
Every now and then, the Rookie of the Year Award winners seem destined to have a significant impact on the future of the game. Think Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, Eddie Murray and Andre Dawson in 1977, or Tom Seaver and Rod Carew in 1967. It’s been only one season, of course, but Mike Trout and Bryce Harper already have that look. Trout was the runner-up to Miguel Cabrera as the AL Most Valuable Player, putting together the best all-around season of any player in the majors, factoring in speed (an MLB-high 49 steals), power (30 homers) and his nightly highlights on defense. And he just turned 21 in August. Harper is even younger, playing his entire season before turning 20, and while his skills are not quite as advanced as Trout’s, he posted one of the best age-19 seasons in baseball history, batting .270 with 22 homers, 59 runs batted in and 18 steals, while also playing strong defense and showing exceptional instincts. Both players approach the game with passion and relentless drive, and possess such a diverse set of skills that they do something memorable every night. We never know what’s coming next from this pair, and we sure can’t wait to find out.
3. New Dimensions
The ballpark that gave up the fewest home runs last season was AT&T Park, whose tenants, the San Francisco Giants, won the World Series. Yet building a winning team in an extreme pitcher’s park has been much more challenging for the teams in the 28th- and 29th-ranked parks for home runs. The San Diego Padres (Petco Park, 28th) and the Seattle Mariners (Safeco Field, 29th) have not won much lately, and they decided after the season to move in their fences. In San Diego, the power alleys will be reduced by 12 feet in left field and nine feet in right. Another part of the right field wall will come in by 11 feet. In Seattle, the left field walls will be pulled in, in various spots, from four to 17 feet, with a four-foot reduction for much of right field. “We have been an outlier in terms of the difficulty hitting in our ballpark,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik says. “What we really want to be is a fair ballpark for pitchers and hitters. That’s the biggest thing.” Neither the Padres nor the Mariners (whose retractable roof does not enclose the ballpark) can do much about the cool and heavy local air, which can depress the flight of a ball. But at least their hitters won’t be as frustrated as before. Now, of course, the teams need to find hitters talented enough to take advantage. That could be a much bigger challenge.
4. Dodger Dollars
It’s been quite a debut for the new owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who last May paid $2.15 billion for a team emerging from bankruptcy with a payroll just over $100 million. Now the payroll is doubled, Dodger Stadium is being renovated, and the team is stuffed with TV stars. That’s no coincidence, since the Dodgers’ spending has everything to do with a lavish new deal for their cable rights. The Yankees showed the value of must-see players (who also win) on the wildly successful YES Network in New York. The Dodgers haven’t grabbed a playoff spot since 2009, so it will be fascinating to see if all their imports can come together and lead them back. Stan Kasten, the team president, promised that it would take more than dollars to win. “I always say smart beats rich,” he said. “The Yankees got as good as they are because they’re both smart and rich. We’re working on it.” All of the newcomers, even Zack Greinke, must prove the Dodgers smart for believing that their best days are in front of them, not behind them. If it turns out that the Dodgers paid Greinke for his Royals success, Carl Crawford for his Rays success and Hanley Ramirez for his Marlins success (and so on), this could turn into a big-budget Hollywood flop.
5. Hamilton’s New Home
It was time for Josh Hamilton to leave the Texas Rangers. After five seasons in which he led them to their first two World Series, the fans had turned on him, and the team made a tepid offer to bring him back. Even so, the Rangers served Hamilton well in his time there, creating an environment in which he could manage his complicated life and thrive. A hefty contract (five years, $125 million), new teammates and a ballpark that is less hitter-friendly bring challenges that Hamilton, a recovering addict, must navigate now that he’s with the Los Angeles Angels. “I have a past history of making mistakes with drugs and alcohol, drinking twice in seven years, which is not good for me,” Hamilton said after signing. “They’re going to help me with my support system to put things in place that I had with the Rangers.” If Hamilton stays clean, he will add another dangerous bat to a glittering lineup that last year added Albert Pujols from St. Louis. Splashy annual signings do not guarantee success, and the Angels are starting to look like their 1980s teams, put together largely by poaching stars like Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson and Fred Lynn from other teams. But if Hamilton makes a smooth transition, the Angels could power their way to the World Series for the first time in more than a decade.
6. Oriole Luck
The 2013 Baltimore Orioles will be a fascinating case study in luck. All last season, as they clawed to their first playoff berth in 15 years, they battled the perception that their success was a freakish product of extraordinary good fortune. Never mind that the Orioles won 93 games — their success in one-run games made them a prime candidate for a major regression, or so the thinking went. The 2012 Orioles were 29–9 in one-run games, the best winning percentage in such games for any team in the modern era. It would seem to be unsustainable, but the Orioles believe that their power (214 homers, ranking second in MLB) and dominant bullpen (3.00 ERA, ranking fifth) give them a distinct edge in close games. They lost one power hitter this winter, Mark Reynolds, but bring back four others who hit at least 22 home runs. They’ll also have a healthy Nick Markakis and will get to see heralded third baseman Manny Machado, 20, for a full season. And, of course, they retain manager Buck Showalter, the master in-game strategist, who has turned around every team he has managed but still seeks postseason glory.
7. New League for the Astros
The Houston Astros’ 51-year run as a mediocre National League franchise is over. They won a single pennant, in 2005, and were probably best known for the now-outdated innovations of artificial turf and the domed stadium. They ended their NL existence with the two worst seasons in club history, losing 106 games in 2011 and 107 last year. It’s a good time to start over, and the Astros are all about new beginnings. They move to the AL West this season, bringing a rookie manager, new uniforms and a largely anonymous and ever-shifting roster. General manager Jeff Luhnow cleaned house in his first year on the job, and former Nationals coach Bo Porter gets his first chance to lead a team. He doesn’t appear to have much talent to work with, though chances are he will find a gem or two in the massive haul of players Luhnow has acquired in trades, waiver claims and Rule 5 draft picks. Given the size of their market, their new cable revenue, and their annual high draft position, the Astros could be a power in a few years. But that time is not now, and a new batch of opponents may not be enough to bring fans back to Minute Maid Park. The Astros’ presence could boost the win totals of the A’s, the Rangers and the Angels, making it possible for both AL wild cards to come from the West Division.
8. Davey’s Farewell
Tony La Russa retired as a champion with the Cardinals in 2011, and now Washington’s Davey Johnson will try to do the same. Johnson, 70, has declared this to be his final season as a manager, after stops with the Mets, Reds, Orioles, Dodgers and, after more than a decade out of the dugout, the Nationals. He guided the Nats to their first playoff appearance last season, earning the National League Manager of the Year award but losing to St. Louis in a five-game division series. The Nationals were one strike from victory but still lost, the reverse of Johnson’s greatest moment as a manager, when his Mets came within a strike of losing the 1986 World Series, only to stage a furious Game 6 comeback against Boston. That remains Johnson’s only championship team, but he has a chance for another with the Nationals, who led the majors in wins last season (98) and added the durable veteran Dan Haren to the league’s best rotation. Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals’ ace, will have no innings restrictions this year, and Denard Span, the speedy new center fielder, adds another element to the offense. Johnson, brash as ever, welcomes the expectations for his young team. “World Series or bust, that’s probably the slogan this year,” he says. “But I’m comfortable with that.”
Six players were suspended 50 games last season for violating baseball’s steroids policy, the most since 2007. The last three to be caught — former San Francisco Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, Oakland Athletics pitcher Bartolo Colon and San Diego Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal — tested positive for testosterone. So did the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun, in Oct. 2011, before his suspension was overturned last spring. It seems to be no coincidence that some players believe they can successfully avoid the testers when it comes to testosterone, and Michael Weiner, the executive director of the players’ union, called it a troubling trend. He vowed in the offseason to “make sure that our deterrent on testosterone is as strong as it can be,” adding that talks were underway to improve the detection of the drug. The sagas of Braun and Cabrera, especially, were major stories in 2012, and the issue bears watching again this season — for the players caught using testosterone, or (one hopes) for the reduction in positive tests.
10. Padded Hats
Twice in the final two months of last season, a pitcher was struck in the head by a line drive. Brandon
McCarthy, then of the Athletics, suffered a skull fracture, brain contusion and epidural hemorrhage in September. The Tigers’ Doug Fister, pitching in the World Series, stayed in the game with no apparent side effects. There is no way to entirely remove the possibility of a batted ball striking a pitcher who does not have time to react, and as McCarthy and Fister showed, the effects of such a blow can vary widely. But baseball deserves credit for trying to reduce the risk. In December, ESPN reported that MLB had examined caps with interior padding and planned to send them to some pitchers for suggestions. Baseball was said to be working with six different companies on prototypes and was hoping to have samples available for pitchers to wear in spring training. Of course, that doesn’t mean pitchers will like them. The caps must be vigorously tested, and beyond that, they must be unobtrusive, since pitching depends so much on precise, repetitive movements. Baseball could try the caps on minor leaguers — the lab rats of the game — before requiring them in the big leagues. But if there’s a way to keep pitchers safer without disrupting their routines, baseball is obligated to consider it. Here’s hoping the prototypes meet with approval and help prevent a tragedy.
11. Kris Medlen
It’s rare to hear old-timers rave so enthusiastically about newcomers. But the Braves’ Kris Medlen was just that impressive late last season. “I would have liked to have played with Kris Medlen, because I do think he has a communication with a force in pitching that most of us can’t talk to,” Braves announcer Don Sutton, the Hall of Fame pitcher, said in September. “It’s an awareness, it’s a sixth sense.” Don’t blame Sutton for hyperbole; Medlen, at the time, was in the middle of an unprecedented roll. The righthander set a major league record by reeling off 23 consecutive starts in which his team won, a streak that began in 2010, stretched through Tommy John surgery and lasted through the end of the 2012 regular season. Medlen’s luck ran out in the wild card game, which he lost despite pitching well, but it will be fascinating to see if he can carry the full-season load as the Braves’ next ace, at age 27. Short and stocky — 5'10", 190 pounds — he does not look the part of a dominant starter. But that’s what he was, with a turbo changeup that helped him post a WHIP of 0.913. Had he thrown enough innings to qualify, that figure would have led both leagues. Not just last year, either — but in each of the last eight seasons.
12. Will Anyone Show Up in Miami?
The Marlins bet big on 2012, and when everything went wrong, owner Jeffrey Loria gave up. There’s no other way to say it. The grand vision of a high-payroll team managed by Ozzie Guillen was given just one season to succeed, before the front office went into the franchise’s default mode and slashed the payroll. The champions of 1997 and 2003 were gutted, piece by piece, and so it is again. Fans in South Florida were already skeptical of Loria, who had promised things would change if only the taxpayers would build him a stadium. Now that he has it, and has slid back so quickly into a major rebuild, the sense of betrayal is greater than ever. Attendance — which reached only 12th in the league last year — seems certain to sink back to last, where it was each season from 2006 through 2011. Loria, of course, should be used to intimate gatherings at his ballparks. He also presided over the final years of the Montreal Expos, and he seems determined to once again turn a nice profit as a welfare case while driving another franchise into oblivion.
13. Royal Contenders
When Darryl Motley caught Andy Van Slyke’s fly ball to win Game 7 of the 1985 World Series for the Royals, a young Dayton Moore was there, watching from a hillside along I-70 as his favorite team reached the pinnacle. Moore, who was 18 then, could not have known that the Royals would never return — not even to the playoffs, let alone the World Series — for at least 27 years. As general manager of the Royals, it’s Moore’s job to get Kansas City back to being a contender, and as he approaches his seventh year there, the time is now. The Royals won only 72 games last year, their 17th losing season in the last 18. But Moore has positioned them to contend now, acquiring four starting pitchers since the 2012 All-Star break — Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, James Shields and Wade Davis. The last two came from Tampa Bay in a controversial December trade that cost the Royals the Minor League Player of the Year, outfielder Wil Myers, and three other prospects. The hope is that homegrown young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas will blossom this season, while homegrown veterans who have signed long-term deals, like Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, continue to do their thing. It’s a risky bet, because young, cost-efficient players like Myers are the lifeblood of a small-market franchise. But the Royals are tired of losing, and Shields sees parallels to his former team. “They definitely remind me of our ’07 season going into our ’08 season, in the Rays’ organization,” Shields says. “I think there’s a good possibility we can step in that direction.” The Royals will be overjoyed if that happens; the Rays won the pennant in 2008 and have contended ever since.
14. Bert to the Desert
If you’ve seen “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN (and since you’re reading this magazine, we’ll assume you have), you know Steve Berthiaume, the host who skillfully combines irreverence with insight. Now he’s the play-by-play man for the Arizona Diamondbacks, giving real baseball lovers another reason to stay up late for those telecasts out West. It’s a treat to hear Vin Scully call the Dodgers and Dick Enberg behind the Padres’ microphone, two old pros still going strong whose familiar sound takes us back through the decades. Berthiaume is just a rookie in this role, with little play-by-play experience, but we’re willing to bet that he’s a rising star whose deep appreciation of the game will make him a fixture on our televisions for a generation. The Diamondbacks might not be the most interesting team in the National League West, but Berthiaume will make them worth watching.
15. Three Injured Yanks
Few players have had as much impact on baseball in the last decade and a half as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Alex Rodriguez, and each has undergone major surgery since his last game. Jeter’s season ended in the dirt near second base in Game 1 of the ALCS, when he broke his ankle stretching for a ground ball. Rivera’s ended in May, on the warning track in Kansas City, when he tore his right ACL chasing a fly ball in batting practice. Rodriguez learned after the season that he needed surgery on his left hip. Jeter and Rivera are scheduled to be recovered in time for Opening Day, while Rodriguez is likely out until June. How will Jeter, already limited in range, handle another year in the field at shortstop? How will Rivera, at age 43, respond to the longest break from pitching in his career? And will the rapidly deteriorating Rodriguez be able to summon any of his past greatness, or is he destined to be an albatross for the Yankees in the final five years — yes, five years — of his contract? No athlete, no matter how successful, is guaranteed a fairy-tale ending. And few will be scrutinized as closely as these Yankees.
—by Tyler Kepner
This weekend provides a rare off day on the jam-packed NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, but that doesn’t mean analysis will stop. After five races, there is a litany of story-telling statistics in a series that continues to one-up itself, to the delight of news desks everywhere.
Secondary to all the controversial opinions, fighting and crashing, the most popular driver in the sport is the one sitting atop the NASCAR mountain. Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings, which, as you will read below, is well deserved.
4.4 and 2.3 Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team lead full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors in average finish (4.4) and finish deviation (2.3).
What does this mean? Earnhardt is the most consistent driver in the series right now — a zero deviation would mean the same finish over and over — while bringing home tremendous results. Junior Nation should be rejoicing, because that isn’t just the sort of thing that gets a driver to the Chase; what Earnhardt and his Steve Letarte-led race team are doing are habits of potential champions.
+54.2% Earnhardt’s finishes are an increase of 54.2 percent over his average running position with 10 percent of a race to go.
That plus-54.2 percent position retainment difference is another habit of a title contender. That increase is worth about 26 positions — think of that as 26 extra points — earned in the waning laps of each race. On fresh tires, Earnhardt navigated through a firestorm of activity last Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, driving from 13th to second in the final 20 laps for his most lucrative home-stretch run of the season.
100% Four teams in the Cup Series have finished in the top half of fields in all five races for a relevance percentage of 100.
“Relevance” is finishing in the top half of fields (21st or better in the Cup Series). This is important because hitting the 80 percent mark through the 26-race regular season all but lands a team one of the 10 automatic Chase spots. Of the four driver-team combinations currently with perfect relevance percentages, two of them aren’t surprises (Earnhardt and the No. 88 team and Greg Biffle with his No. 16 team) and two sort of are (Paul Menard and the No. 27 team and rookie Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and the new-look No. 17 team). It is no coincidence that all four teams are currently inside the top 12 of the point standings at this juncture.
41 The No. 16 team with Greg Biffle has gone 41 races without registering a DNF (Did Not Finish, a status frequently used in NASCAR box scores to indicate why a driver finished so poorly).
In today’s NASCAR, with Chase implications attached to every position gained or lost, consistency matters. That starts with finishing races, which is something Biffle and crew chief Matt Puccia have done in their sleep over the last year. Their most recent DNF was an engine failure in the 2011 season finale at Homestead, so credit the Roush Yates engine department for holding strong behind one of Ford’s best entries. Biffle himself deserves a tip of the cap for being able to avoid accidents well enough to go 76 races without an accident-related DNF.