Articles By Athlon Sports
The 2016 NASCAR season will be here soon, and Athlon Sports is helping you prep for the season with a scouting report and fantasy preview for each of the top 16 drivers. The Athlon Sports 2016 Racing Preview, available on newsstands now, includes previews and stats for every driver and every track.
Brad Keselowski checks in at No. 6 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Both of the Team Penske drivers are fast, and both of their mouths have gotten ‘em in trouble. And I think they’re going to be better for it,” a former crew chief says. “It starts with Keselowski, because he’s always had the talent, but he’s also always been running his mouth. I think maybe Logano let some of that false bravado rub off on him a little too much after he came over to Penske. But I think those two drivers have learned valuable lessons.
“Talking is fun, but being a little bit more humble always wins out. Keselowski went through it. He knows the line now; he knows what it’s like to be running that mouth and being on an island by himself, trying to rule the world. It doesn’t work too well and it’s not much fun.”
“There is a reason Jeff Gordon called him out after their run-in during the 2014 Chase at Texas,” says one industry insider. “He can get on people’s nerves during a race, and definitely after. But man, the dude can really wheel a car, and there’s also a reason he was the 2012 Sprint Cup champion. Don’t underestimate his loyalty to and chemistry with crew chief Paul Wolfe, either. They will continue to contend for championships and likely are to be faster this year after being just a little off much of 2015.”
Keeping it clean: Keselowski has just two DNFs during the last two seasons. One of them came at the Daytona 500, where any fantasy pick is a gamble. Add in a career-best 25 top-10 finishes last year, and your team is unlikely to get bombed by a bad result.
Fontana fluke? Keselowski’s only victory last season came at Fontana in a freak green-white-checkered finish. But he wouldn’t have won without a last-second, mysterious debris caution, and his previous best performance there is 18th. Stay away.
Loudon lock: On the flip side, Keselowski has run 12th or better at one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway each of his last nine starts. His average finish during that span is 5.6 with a victory and two second-place finishes.
Bonus! Keselowski has led a lap in a whopping 51 of the last 72 races. That’s 51 precious extra points for your team.
The 2016 NASCAR season will be here soon, and Athlon Sports is helping you prep for the season with a scouting report and fantasy preview for each of the top 16 drivers. The Athlon Sports 2016 Racing Preview, available on newsstands now, includes previews and stats for every driver and every track.
Matt Kenseth checks in at No. 5 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“I think Kenseth is a big surprise — because he’s over that 40-year mark,” a former driver says. “He’s a man of age now in his mid-40s (he will turn 44 this March). I think he might be the biggest surprise in the Sprint Cup garage. Matt’s like fine wine; he gets better with time, he gets better as he gets older. Listen, he caught a lot of people off-guard last year with a lot of wins (totaling five). He’s still got a lot of speed, and I think that’s more than a little surprising.”
“I know his past. Let’s just say it was no surprise what he did to Joey (Logano when he deliberately wrecked Logano during last fall’s Chase race at Martinsville) and leave it at that,” a former crew chief says. “Matt won his championship a long time ago under the old points system. But for me, Matt had his very best year in 2015. There’s no doubt. He was fast and he won a lot of races. I think he’s getting better the older he gets.
“I think a lot of it has to do with these drivers taking their health a little more seriously. They’re working out more, taking better care of their bodies. I think they learn how to focus a little bit better — some of them are checking out sports therapy and things like that. Plus, Matt’s just an old-school racer who has the respect of the other drivers.”
Pole position: Nine of Kenseth’s 17 career poles have come in his three years with Joe Gibbs Racing. He won from there twice in 2015 (Bristol, Michigan), so don’t be afraid to pick him up once you see that he’s starting up front.
Brickyard buildup: Kenseth has three straight top-10 finishes at Indianapolis and is one of the highest-profile drivers left not to win there. His time is coming soon; don’t miss out.
Right-turn risk: Kenseth is a great bet on any type of oval as one of the sport’s most consistent drivers. But the right-turn reality of road courses proves difficult; he’s never placed inside the top 5 at Sonoma, and a fourth at Watkins Glen last August was his first top-5 finish there.
Martinsville mayhem: Don’t simply avoid Matt at Martinsville because of how his car turned into a battering ram last year (see: Joey Logano). He’s never won at the half-mile paperclip and posts a middling career average finish there of 15.1.
The 2016 NASCAR season will be here soon, and Athlon Sports is helping you prep for the season with a scouting report and fantasy preview for each of the top 16 drivers. The Athlon Sports 2016 Racing Preview, available on newsstands now, includes previews and stats for every driver and every track.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. checks in at No. 7 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Dale Jr., for me, is a lot like Matt Kenseth. And they’re close friends. Junior is getting better as he gets older, also,” a former crew chief says.
“I think what has benefited a lot of these drivers as they get older is that we’re in a new era where the best organizations have four cars. In other words, you look at Joe Gibbs (Racing) and they’ve got four cars now. Hendrick (Motorsports) has four cars. And when Junior looks at his teammates, they’re all health freaks,” a former driver says. “Even Jeff Gordon last year, he was 44 and he’s got the same damn body frame that he’s had for years. Unfortunately, (Gordon’s) back is a little weaker than most. But the point is that when Dale Jr. looks around him, it’s motivated him to get a lot better because he’s surrounded by better people. And that’s going to make him better for longer.”
“He’s another driver getting up in the 40s and he’s running better,” a former crew chief says. “He has surrounded himself with the greatest teammates in NASCAR history, and they’re all physically fit. He’s also another guy who has found true love off the track, and I think he’s a lot like Kyle Busch there. His health is better, but men also can change for the better with true love and happiness. … It makes for a better man — and a better driver, too.”
Seeing the air: Earnhardt’s former restrictor plate magic has returned over the past two seasons. Following in the footsteps of his father, Junior now has 10 combined victories at Daytona and Talladega. Last season he posted two victories, an average finish of 1.8 and did what most viewed as impossible: miss the “Big One” four times.
Intermediate Excellence: He didn’t score a victory on them last season, but Earnhardt has never been better on NASCAR’s most raced-on tracks: 1.5 to 2-mile “cookie-cutter” ovals. Here were his results on them, in chronological order: 3rd, 4th, 6th, 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 2nd, 21st, 10th, 12th, 28th, 21st, 6th, 40th. Using him early and often at tracks such as Atlanta, Las Vegas and Fontana bodes well for your fantasy hopes.
No Brickyard glory here: Earnhardt has just one career top-5 finish at Indianapolis (4th in 2012). It’s a good race to bench him.
Kurt Busch checks in at No. 8 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Both of the Busch brothers are absolute wheelmen. It’s incredible,” one former driver says. “I haven’t seen a brother combo like that in NASCAR. It’s way stronger than the Labontes (Terry and Bobby). They’re all champions, now that Kyle has won one, too, but the Busch brothers have won way more races than the Labontes ever did.”
“We all know about Kurt’s well-documented temper problems. He obviously is his own worst enemy all too often, and sometimes how he handles success is more important than how he deals with setbacks,” says one industry insider who has witnessed many Busch blowups. “But he did a fantastic job last year, making the Chase after being suspended for the first three races. For a while we even wondered if he’d race at all, and when he came back, he absolutely put on a show those first few races.
“Then again, no one has ever questioned his ability to drive. Maybe seeing the way Kyle has matured will eventually help him mature in the same way, although he’s always going to have that edge about him. In a weird sort of way, though, it’s part of what makes him so great behind the wheel. He seems to have found a home at Stewart-Haas Racing, where he’s in top-notch equipment, and Tony Gibson is a good fit for him as a crew chief. They like to say they’re a good fit because they’re both ‘old-school racers,’ and that is absolutely correct.”
A New Man? Busch, known for an aggressive driving style, went through all 33 races last season without a DNF. That’s the first time he’s done so since going 7-for-7 as a part-time Cup rookie in 2000. With top-quality equipment provided by Hendrick Motorsports, look for this accomplishment to become a trend, not an aberration.
Fontana Fury: Busch has run third twice at the two-mile California oval since joining his No. 41 team in 2014. Robbed of a victory there by a late caution last season, he’ll be out for redemption. It’s only one race, but Busch is a “must start” here.
Road Course Warrior: The last time Busch finished outside the top 12 at a road course? 2012. Brother Kyle may have two wins during that stretch (2013-15), but it’s Kurt who has both more consistency and a higher average finish (5.8).
Trouble… Keep in mind that Kurt’s missed at least one race for off-track incidents twice in the last four seasons. There’s always a risk.
Officiating in any sport is a difficult assignment. Mistakes are going to be made each week, but some errors are bigger than others. There have been numerous bad calls in sports history, but we rounded up some of the worst in recent memory. The Green Bay-Seattle "Fail Mary" is one of the more memorable mistakes by officials, and the 2015 college football season featured the infamous kickoff return in the Miami-Duke contest.
Here's a look at some of the memorable and worst officiating moments in sports history.
Worst Officiating Moments in Sports History
2015: Miami Defeats Duke After Botched Replay on Kickoff Return
The 2015 college football season had its share of must-see moments, but the craziest play was Miami’s kickoff return in the final seconds to defeat Duke. The Hurricanes used eight laterals to keep the ball alive, with the return eventually landing in the hands of Corn Elder for a 91-yard score. The referees went to the replay system to check for any forward laterals or to see if the returner had a knee down on the return. After a lengthy review, the officials let the touchdown stand. However, replays showed Miami’s Mark Walton was down before a lateral, the officiating crew missed an illegal block in the back and a few players spilling onto the field from the Hurricanes’ bench while the play was still in motion. The officials from this game were suspended two ACC contests due to the errors made on Miami’s kickoff return.
2013: Buffalo Awarded Safety on Intentional Grounding
Midweek MAC games are one of the more entertaining parts of college football’s November schedule. However, the Buffalo-Ohio game from Tuesday night won’t be remembered for a quality game between two potential bowl teams. Instead, awful officiating will overshadow Buffalo’s 30-3 win.
Early in the second half, Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton was pressured out of the pocket and threw a pass to avoid a sack, which resulted in an intentional grounding call. However, the referees ruled Tettleton was in the endzone, and Buffalo was awarded a safety.
But there’s only one problem: Tettleton wasn’t in the endzone – he was on the four-yard line.
2012: Green Bay vs. Seattle: Golden Tate’s Hail Mary "Catch"
Replacement officials made plenty of glaring errors through the first three weeks of the 2012 NFL season but none bigger than the one that occurred between the Seattle-Green Bay matchup on Monday night. With the Seahawks trailing 12-7 with seconds remaining, quarterback Russell Wilson heaved a pass to the corner of the endzone, which appeared to be intercepted by Green Bay defensive back M.D. Jennings. However, the officials ruled Seattle receiver Golden Tate wrestled away control and award the catch to the Seahawks. Making matters worse for Green Bay, Tate clearly pushed off on a defensive back, which allowed him to get into position for the catch.
2001: Tuck Rule – Oakland vs. New England in AFC Divisional Playoffs
It’s not unusual for the rules to be changed, tweaked or adjusted from season to season, depending upon the circumstances. For the most part, the changes go largely unnoticed unless something happens to bring them into the spotlight. That was certainly the case in the 2001 AFC Divisional Playoffs as the entire world was introduced to what would become known simply as the “Tuck Rule.” Playing in a driving snowstorm at home, New England trailed Oakland 13-10 in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes remaining. Still out of field goal range, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady dropped back to pass and dropped the football after being hit. The Raiders recovered and seemingly put an end to the Patriots’ hopes. However, upon further review, referee Walt Coleman reversed the call on the field of a fumble, according to the “Tuck Rule,” which was introduced in 1999. Coleman explained on national TV that Brady had started to throw a forward pass and then lost possession of the ball as he was trying to bring it back, tuck it, into his body. The overturned call made it an incomplete pass and Brady was able to put Adam Vinatieri into position to make a game-tying 45-yard field goal with 27 seconds left on the clock. The Patriots would go on to win in overtime and eventually capture the first of their four Super Bowl titles during the 2000s.
1972: Russia vs. United States Olympic Basketball Gold Medal Game
The United States Olympic basketball team entered the 1972 Games in Munich having never suffered a loss in the history of the Games, and it looked as if their streak would continue with a 50-49 win over the Soviets in the gold medal game. The officials had other ideas. In perhaps the most controversial sports ending ever, the Soviets got three attempts to score. After two questionable clock resettings, a length-of the floor pass was thrown to Alexander Belov, who made a layup at the buzzer for what remains in the record books a 51-50 win — even if the members of the U.S. team refuse to acknowledge it.
1999: Pittsburgh vs. Detroit: Thanksgiving Day Coin Toss
Normally, the refs’ eyesight is called into question, but on Thanksgiving Day 1999, an official’s hearing was the issue. As the Steelers-Lions game headed into overtime, Luckett conducted the coin toss. Steelers captain Jerome Bettis called “tails,” but somehow Luckett heard “heads,” awarding possession to the Lions, who took advantage and won the game. The blunder caused the league to change its coin toss procedure — too little, too late for the Steelers.
2010: Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga’s Near-Perfect Game
Detroit starter Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game on June 2, 2010 in Comerica Park against Cleveland when the Indians Jason Donald stepped up to the plate. Donald hit an easy grounder to Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera who flipped the ball to Galaragga covering first, only to watch helplessly as first base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly ruled Donald safe. Galaragga would retire the next batter for the one-hit shutout, but in the minds of the Tigers team and fans in attendance, the damage had already been done. After the game, Joyce willingly and profusely admitted his mistake and took it upon himself to personally apologize to Galaragga. Both men deserve credit for how each of them handled the situation, as they will be forever linked because of it.
2011: Jerry Meals’ Bad Call at Home Ends 19-inning marathon between Braves and Pirates
No one wants to see any baseball game end on a bad call at home, let alone one that lasted 19 innings, but that’s what happened in Atlanta on July 26, 2011. Actually, the game didn’t officially end until July 27 as the Braves and Pirates started on Tuesday night and played into the early hours of Wednesday morning to settle this one. And in the end, the only reason it ended in the bottom of the 19th was because home plate umpire Jerry Meals egregiously called Julio Lugo safe at home although Pirates catcher Michael McKenry clearly applied the tag before Lugo’s foot crossed the plate. What exactly Meals saw only he can answer, but all you need to do is listen to the contrasting calls by the teams’ respective broadcasts and realize that there’s little doubt he missed this one.
1990: The Fifth Down Game – Colorado at Missouri
The Buffaloes claimed a share of the 1990 national championship with Georgia Tech, but the season was overshadowed by a controversial finish against Missouri. Colorado was awarded a fifth down late in the game, which allowed it to score the game-winning touchdown. Quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball on first down, while running back Eric Bieniemy was stopped at the one-yard line on second down. On third down, Bieniemy was stopped at the goal-line, which forced Johnson to spike the ball on “fourth down”. However, Johnson’s spike on first down apparently went unnoticed, as the Buffaloes scored on a touchdown run on "fifth down" to seal the victory. The Buffaloes went on to finish the year with an 11-1 record and a 10-9 victory over Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.
1979: Mike Renfro Ruled out of Bounds in 1979 AFC Championship Game
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the NFL’s team of the 1970s winning four Super Bowls in a span of six seasons (1974-79). The team they defeated to get to the last two during this run was the Houston Oilers. While the Oilers put up little resistance in the 1978 AFC Championship Game, losing 34-5, it’s the one that took place the following season that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of Oilers fans. Leading 17-10 in the third quarter, Houston wide receiver Mike Renfro appeared to put the Oilers in a position to tie the game, when he made an incredible catch in the back corner of the end zone. Television replays confirmed the catch, but the officials, who did not have the benefit of instant replay back then, ruled it an incompletion. The Oilers had to settle for a field goal and the Steelers would go on to a 27-13 victory.
1991: Kent Hrbek’s “Hard Tag” on Ron Gant in World Series
Who says baseball is not a contact sport? In Game 2 of the 1991 World Series Minnesota first baseman Kent Hrbek and Atlanta outfielder Ron Gant were involved in a play that not only would have made a wreslter proud, but turned out to a be a pivotal play when all was said and done. Trailing by one run in the top of the third, Gant singled to left off of Twins starter Kevin Tapani to seemingly put runners on first and third with two outs and David Justice on deck. The throw from the outfield rolled away from the fielder briefly, however, resulting in Gant taking a fairly wide turn around first. After retrieving the ball, Tapani threw to Hrbek at first in hopes of catching Gant off base. Even though Gant made it safely back to the bag before Hrbek could apply the tag; the burly first baseman lifted Gant off of the first all the while keeping his glove on Gant. Umpire Drew Coble called Gant out, ending the Braves’ threat, and the Twins would go on to win Game 2 by one run, 3-2, and the World Series in seven. Tapani made the out possible by throwing back to first, with Hrbek receiving two points for a textbook takedown.
1998: Seahawks vs. Jets – Vinny Testaverde’s "Touchdown"
Although the Seahawks benefitted from a blown call on Monday night, they were the victim of poor officiating in 1998. In an early December matchup in New York, Seattle lost 32-31 on a phantom touchdown run by Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde. With no instant reply, the Seahawks were unable to challenge the call, even though it was clear Testaverde never crossed the goal-line.
1986: World Cup: Argentina vs. England
The 1986 World Cup Finals between Argentina and England was one of the most incredible soccer matches in the history of the sport, due in no small part to Diego Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal. Maradona punched the ball with his left hand past the English keeper and into the goal during Argentina’s 2-1 win, and referee Ali Bin Nasser failed to see the infraction. Afterward, Maradona famously commented that his goal came “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God,” and the phrase entered the sports lexicon.
1985: Cardinals-Royals World Series
The Cardinals were three outs away from winning the 1985 World Series, when umpire Don Denkinger infamously intervened. The Cardinals led the Royals three games to two and took a 1-0 lead into the ninth inning of Game 6. The inning's leadoff batter, Jorge Orta, sent a chopper to first baseman Jack Clark, who tossed the ball to pitcher Todd Worrell at first base, clearly beating Orta by a half-step. Clearly, that is, to everyone but Denkinger, who called Orta safe, leading to a two-run rally. The Royals went on to win Game 7 over the deflated Cards 11-0.
2006: Oregon vs. Oklahoma: Onside Kick Error
The Sooners suffered a huge blow to their national title hopes in 2006, as bad officiating cost Oklahoma a win in Eugene. The Sooners led 33-20 with three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, but Oregon scored on a 16-yard touchdown run by Dennis Dixon with just over a minute to go. The Ducks recovered the onside kick, but replay clearly showed the kick hit one of their players before going 10 yards. Although instant replay was used, Oregon kept the ball, and Dennis Dixon hit Brian Paysinger for a 23-yard touchdown pass to win the game. The officials from the Oklahoma-Oregon matchup were suspended one game due to the missed calls late in the fourth quarter.
1979: Rose Bowl – USC vs. Michigan: Charles White’s "Touchdown"
The 1979 Rose Bowl matchup was a much-anticipated game between two top-five teams. USC entered the 1979 Rose Bowl at 11-1, while Michigan was 10-1. In the second quarter, Charles White appeared to score, which would give USC a 14-3 lead. However, a closer look revealed White fumbled before he reached the endzone and was incorrectly ruled a touchdown by the officiating crew. Considering the final score was 17-10, the “touchdown” proved to be the difference and propelled USC to a finish of No. 1 in the UPI poll.
1999: Dallas vs. Buffalo Stanley Cup: Goal or No Goal?
Brett Hull of the Dallas Stars scored the Stanley Cup series-clinching goal in triple overtime of game six against the Buffalo Sabres. Too bad it was apparently illegal, even if the officials allowed it to stand. When Hull scored, his foot was in the crease, but the puck was not — a no-no, even though the NHL tried a semantics tap-dance around the issue by claiming they had issued a memo allowing goals when the scorer had control of the puck prior to his skate entering the crease. The Sabres' reply? "No goal," which became the franchise rallying cry.
2005: Florida vs. Vanderbilt – Earl Bennett’s “Celebration Penalty”
Winning at Florida is never easy for any team in the SEC, but Vanderbilt’s last win in Gainesville occurred in 1945. The Commodores were on the verge of an upset victory in 2005, as Jay Cutler hit receiver Earl Bennett on a six-yard touchdown pass with less than one minute to go to bring Vanderbilt within one point. The Commodores were prepared to go for two, however, the officials flagged Bennett for excessive celebration, which forced the Commodores to kick the extra point and play for overtime. Bennett’s penalty is one of the most egregious celebration flags in recent memory and prevented Vanderbilt from a two-point conversion that could have won and allowed the Commodores to get bowl eligible.
1999: Chuck Knoblauch’s Phantom Tag in ALCS
The Red Sox were trailing the Yankees by one when they batted in the bottom of the eighth in Game 4 of the 1999 ALCS. With one out, Jose Offerman singled off of Andy Pettitte to seemingly start a rally. It was quickly snuffed out, however, when John Valentin grounded into an inning-ending double play, one that was made possible by Knoblauch’s now-infamous “Phantom Tag” of Offerman at second, with an assist from second base umpire Tim Tschida. The Yankees would go on to score six more runs in the top of the ninth to put the game away and then put the Red Sox away in with a series-clinching win the next night in Fenway Park. The hated Yankees would break the hearts or Red Sox nation yet again in the 2003 ALCS, this time in seven games, before exacting some revenge the next year in a season that would finally put an end to the “Curse of the Bambino” after 86 years.
Denny Hamiln checks in at No. 9 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Denny’s an emotional guy,” says an industry insider. “That helps when he’s running well. But what if he feels his job is threatened as the 2016 season progresses? Any hint Erik Jones is taking his spot could turn into a major distraction quickly for a driver who tends to lose confidence at a moment’s notice.”
“There were times early last year when you actually wondered for a moment if time was running out on Denny at Joe Gibbs Racing,” says another insider. “And trust me, there are times when he gets on some nerves over there. But he’s also very talented and proved it again by making the Chase, then winning the first race in it. This Chase elimination format actually might suit Hamlin more than most going forward, for it allows him to be a bit inconsistent in the Chase and still advance — like he did when he got to the final four at Homestead in 2014. Don’t be surprised if it happens again, even if there are a few more of the inevitable bumps in the road along the way.”
Slow Down! Only rookie Jeb Burton incurred more speeding penalties on pit road than Hamlin’s seven last season. Once Hamlin earns a Chase spot, a push back to 25th after a penalty call gives him less incentive in the “regular season” to work his way toward the front.
Hometown Zero? Hamlin was once known for dominating the proceedings at the two Virginia tracks on the NASCAR circuit: Richmond and Martinsville. But the native of the Old Dominion has won just once on those tracks in the last five years, posting a more pedestrian average finish of 12.2 during that stretch.
One-Hit Wonder: Some of Hamlin’s best finishes last year came at ovals the Cup Series visits only once. He won Chicagoland, was third at Darlington and Kentucky, and ran fifth at both Las Vegas and Indianapolis. Add in a pole at Homestead, and it’s a weird quirk to remember for 2016.
Carl Edwards checks in at No. 10 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“It’s surprising Edwards and crew chief Darian Grubb didn’t win more races in their year together at Joe Gibbs Racing (in 2015),” one industry insider says. “They won two, and they were big ones (the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington), but it just never seemed like the team really got the momentum flowing the positive direction like I thought they would. They weren’t consistently fast, and a lot of times they were the slowest of the four Gibbs cars. I think a lot of people thought they’d come out of the gate at JGR winning like five or six races and being one of the fastest cars. That didn’t really happen and it makes you wonder why.”
“Carl is an old dog. He knows everything he needs to do,” a former crew chief says. “He’s a fast racecar driver and he’s with a fast team. He needs to find a crew chief that fits his style. He needs to get that sorted out. Carl is so good that it shouldn’t take even one year to get him up to speed. So right now I think he’s an old dog looking for new tricks.”
A Tale of Two Seasons: Carl Edwards scored two top-5 finishes and one win in the season’s first 18 races while adjusting to the new No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. During the last 18 races? He scored five top 5s, came within a few points of making the championship Final Four at Homestead and never finished worse than 15th.
Southern Darling: Edwards scored his first victory at Darlington last September and has six straight top-15 finishes at the Lady In Black. Add in a fourth at Kentucky, NASCAR’s other major test of the 2016 rules package, and it’s safe to say Edwards should be a top pick on your roster for intermediates.
Short Track Struggles: Edwards went the whole season without a top-5 finish at the Bristol-Martinsville-Richmond trifecta. He also hasn’t scored a top 5 at Martinsville since 2008. JGR has a great short track program, but it’ll take time.
The last decade or so has been the golden age of Florida baseball. The Gators have reached the College World Series five times since 2005, reaching the final series twice in that span. Before this run, primarily under coach Kevin O’Sullivan, the Gators had been to Omaha just four times in their history.
Something, though, is missing. Florida has yet to add a baseball championship to an athletic program trophy case that has titles eight sports in the last decade, including football, men’s basketball and softball.
No question, O’Sullivan’s team in 2016 is built for a run at Omaha with a loaded pitching staff and core of offensive talent.
With college basketball starting up next week, here’s a look at Athlon’s preseason top 25 and All-America team.
This article and rankings of high school and college prospects can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016 Baseball Preview, available now on newsstands everywhere.
1. Florida (52–18, 19–11 SEC)
The amount of talent in Gainesville is almost unfair. RHP Logan Shore (11–6, 2.72) and LHP A.J. Puk (9–4, 3.81) lead seven pitchers who had a 4.02 ERA or lower. Freshman All-America catcher JJ Schwarz (.332-18-73) and OF Buddy Reed (.305, 18 SBs) head up a potent offense. As if that’s not enough, the No. 1-ranked recruiting class is chock full of talent, including nine MLB draft picks.
2. Louisville (47–18, 25–5 ACC)
The Cards got a shot in the arm when supplemental first-round draft pick Kyle Funkhouser (8–5, 3.20, 104 Ks) decided to return for his senior year. He joins two-way stud Brendan McKay (9–3, 1.77, 117 Ks and .308-4-34) and All-America candidates OF Corey Ray (.325-11-56, 34 SBs) and RHP Zack Burdi (6–1, 0.92).
3. Miami (50–17, 22–8 ACC)
Coming off an Omaha trip, the Hurricanes are back. The 1-through-9 is fiercely intimidating with Zack Collins (.302-15-70), Christopher Barr (.306, 15 SBs) and Willie Abreu (.288-6-47) leading the charge. LHPs Thomas Woodrey (7–2, 2.88) and Danny Garcia (7–1, 3.68) man the weekend, and the Canes boast a strong bullpen featuring RHPs Bryan Garcia (6–2, 2.50, 10 saves) and Cooper Hammond (5–1, 2.25) and LHP Michael Mediavilla (3–2, 1.94).
4. Oregon State (39–18–1, 19–10–1 Pac-12)
The Beavers are back to being Omaha-ready with hurlers such as Drew Rasmussen (7–4, 2.80), Sam Tweedt (8–1, 2.85) and Travis Eckert (6–2, 4.08). Plus, returning from injury are LHP Max Engelbrekt (5–1, 1.30 in 2013) and RHP Jake Thompson (3–2, 4.25 in 2014). All-America catcher KJ Harrison (.309-10-60) is one of six returning starters, and SS Nick Madrigal leads a top-10 freshman class.
5. Virginia (44–24, 15–15 ACC)
The national champions have to replace Brandon Waddell and Nathan Kirby, who are now UVa legends. RHP Connor Jones (7–3, 3.19) and LHP Kevin Doherty (3–1, 3.40, 3 saves) head up a talented, rebuilt staff. Three top hitters are back as C Matt Thaiss (.323-10-64), SS Daniel Pinero (.308-6-29) and 1B/OF Pavin Smith (.307-7-44) pack some pop. Keep tabs on freshman infielder Ryan Karstetter, a 6'4" lumberjack.
6. Vanderbilt (51–21, 20–10 SEC)
Never mind the exodus of names like Swanson, Wiseman, Wiel, Fulmer, Beuhler and Pfeifer. Coach Tim Corbin has kept the talent level ridiculously high. Pitchers Kyle Wright (6–1, 1.23), John Kilichowski (3–4, 2.84) and Jordan Sheffield (5-2, 2.85) and All-America candidates Bryan Reynolds (.318-5-49) and Jeren Kendall (.281-8-40) lead the way.
7. California (36–21, 18–12 Pac-12)
Coach Dave Esquer always gets the most out of his team, which could stalk another postseason run. Devin Pearson (.355-4-22) and Aaron Knapp (.310, 12 SBs) lead an offense that hit just .274. But the pitching is stout with LHP Matt Ladrech (7–4, 2.67) and RHP Daulton Jefferies (6–5, 2.92).
8. Oregon (38–25, 16–14 Pac-12)
Often close-but-no-cigar, this could be the year George Horton’s charges break through to Omaha. Lefties Cole Irvin (2–5, 4.10) and David Peterson (4–6, 4.39) and the return of former supplemental first-round draftee Matt Krook should make a daunting rotation. Seven field starters are back, as is former Freshman All-American A.J. Balta, who sat out 2015. The hyper-talented No. 8-ranked recruiting class features five MLB draftees.
9. Notre Dame (37–23, 17–13 ACC)
Surprised? Don’t be. Mik Aoki has been a miracle-worker. He’ll have 49 of 60 starts back on the mound. Ryan Smoyer (9–1, 2.27), Scott Tully (4–4, 3.17) and Brandon Bielak (6–3, 3.55) lead a deep, talented staff. The offense hit a boney-armed .250 last year, but the entire infield returns, led by 3B Kyle Fiala (.301-4-28) and 2B Cavan Biggio (.258-9-26), who both have major gap power.
10. Louisiana-Lafayette (42–23, 18–11 Sun Belt)
Is this deja vu from 2013? Perhaps. A full 54 of 65 pitching starts return from the Super Regional squad led by LHP Gunnar Leger (6–5, 2.99) and RHP Wyatt Marks (6–1, 3.24), and they’ll lean on closer Dylan Moore (3–3, 1.60, 13 saves). OF Kyle Clement (.346-8-32) and 2B/SS Stefan Trosclair (.338-16-53) will team with junior college All-American Steven Sensley, who hit 21 homers last year.
11. Texas A&M (50–14, 18–10 SEC)
The Aggies could finish much higher, especially if 2014 staff ace Tyler Stubblefield bounces back to 100 percent. Every significant bullpen arm is back, led by Andrew Vinson (5–2, 2.12, 5 saves) and Mark Ecker (1–2, 2.45, 8 saves). OF Nick Banks (.364-8-48) is an All-America-type, and Ryne Birk (.275-10-35) and Hunter Melton (.300-8-37) were huge reasons why the Aggies tied for third nationally in home runs.
12. NC State (36–23, 15–14 ACC)
The Pack caught fire in May and June and hope for a carryover effect. The pitching sported a 2.93 team ERA and has seven sub-3.50 hurlers back, led by weekend starters Brian Brown (7–3, 2.03) and Cory Wilder (2–5, 3.50) and reliever Tommy DeJuneas (3–3, 1.82, 6 saves). The offense hit .271, but Andrew Knizner (.317-5-42) and Preston Palmeiro (.305-7-49) will lead by example.
13. UCLA (45–16, 22–8 Pac-12)
It’s all about pitching and defense for the Bruins. Sure, there were some losses from last year’s team, but the No. 3 recruiting class features LHP Justin Hooper (95 mph fastball) and RHP Kyle Monar, who will join RHPs Grant Dyer (4–2, 1.83) and Griffin Canning (7–1, 2.97) to form a formidable rotation. OF Eric Filia (2013 All-CWS) returns, and infielders Luke Persico (.285-3-43) and Trent Chatterton (.281) are stout gloves.
14. Cal State Fullerton (39–25, 19–5 Big West)
Like UCLA above, the Titans thrive on being pitching-heavy and hard-nosed. Sophomore studs John Gavin (7–3, 3.66) and Connor Seabold (5–4, 3.26) are All-America candidates. Fresno State transfer RHP Blake Quinn and freshman RHP Colton Eastman will make an immediate impact. There are lots of seniors around the diamond, including OF Josh Vargas (.332), 3B/C Jerrod Bravo (.318) and much-improved SS Timmy Richards (.229).
15. Florida State (44–21, 17–13 ACC)
Oh, you know coach Mike Martin’s Seminoles — they’re never too far from the top. There are some holes to fill, but RHPs Mike Compton (4–4, 3.55) and Drew Carlton (5–5, 4.04) will pace the mound staff. Quincy Nieporte (.297-7-48), John Sansone (.245-8-38) and Dylan Busby (.242-9-45) have power but need to post better numbers. The No. 5-ranked recruiting class builds a base for the next few years of contention.
16. Arkansas (40–25, 17–12 SEC)
Give Dave Van Horn a deep pitching staff and watch out. That’s what 2016 brings as RHPs Keaton McKinney (6–2, 3.21), Dominic Taccolini (6–4, 4.32) and James Teague (6–4, 3.36) had 41 combined starts last year. Also, Zach Jackson (5–1, 2.10, 9 saves) might be the nation’s best reliever. Outfield is a question, but infielders Michael Bernal (.269) and Rick Nomura (.298) form a great double-play combo.
17. LSU (54–12, 21–8 SEC)
Wholesale changes in Tiger Town. Eight starters are gone, so look for lots of new faces. Freshmen Trey Dawson and O’Neal Lochridge could be instant infield stars. The pitching corps is well-stocked. All-American Alex Lange (12–0, 1.97) is pro-ready, as is sophomore LHP Jared Poche’ (9–2, 3.05). And bullpen aces like RHPs Jesse Stallings (1-2, 2.73, 12 saves) and Parker Bugg (1-2, 1.72) are back.
18. Oklahoma State (38–20, 14–8 Big 12)
Josh Holliday has led the Pokes to three straight NCAAs and two Regional host spots in Stillwater. Both streaks could continue as infielder Donnie Walton (.326-4-29) and reliever Garrett Williams (1–0, 4.91) both had great summers in the Cape Cod League. Seniors RF Corey Hassel (.312-3-33) and two-way threat Conor Costello (.240-6-35, 2–0, 1.67) are hungry for Omaha. 1B Dustin Williams (.276-6-38) looks for consistency.
19. Maryland (42–24, 14–10 Big Ten)
The Terps aren’t going away anytime soon. Coach John Szefc lost eight draftees last June, but a pair of All-Americans will keep things hot in RHP Mike Shawaryn (13–2, 1.71) and SS Kevin Smith (.273-7-35). C/DH Nick Cieri (.299) had a huge summer in the Cape Cod League, and junior college All-America OF Madison Nickens and 2B Nick Dunn head up a top-20 recruiting class.
20. Houston (43–20, 16–8 AAC)
Coach Todd Whitting believes he’s got two of the best starting pitchers in the country in LHP Seth Romero (7–4, 1.94) and RHP Andrew Lantrip (9–3, 2.62, 115 Ks). The bullpen needs re-tooling, but low-90s fireballer Bubba Maxwell is back after missing most of last season. Three of the six returnees in the batting order hit at least .300 — Corey Julks (.302-5-38), Jacob Campbell (.301-5-41) and Josh Vidales (.300).
21. Coastal Carolina (39–21, 17–7 Big South)
The Chanticleers went from 24 wins in 2014 to 39 last year. Look for more in 2016 as seven top hitters and four of the top five pitchers return. OF Anthony Marks (.343, 17 SBs), SS Michael Paez (.326-8-42) and C/1B G.K. Young (.301-9-49) should improve the .274 average. RHPs Bobby Holmes (4–1, 2.90), Andrew Beckwith (6–4, 3.26) and Alex Cunningham (6–0, 2.56) should see expanded roles.
22. Tulane (35–25, 13–11 AAC)
Nearly everyone is back from the first Green Wave Regional team since 2008. A veteran squad returns with RHPs Corey Merrill (5–6, 2.12), Emerson Gibbs (5–3, 2.73), Patrick Duester (7–6, 3.21) and Alex Massey (6–4, 3.67), who combined for 51 starts. The Wave sported a taut .971 defense and gets back SS Stephen Alemais (.312, 27 SBs), 1B Hunter Williams (.285-4-28) and 3B Hunter Hope (.230).
23. Georgia Tech (32–23, 13–17 ACC)
These guys missed the Regionals? Weird right? Virtually every facet of the team needs a reboot for the Yellow Jackets this season. Every pitcher of note returns, led by RHPs Brandon Gold (7–3, 3.26) and Zac Ryan (9–1, 3.59, 7 saves). The top three hitters are back in Ryan Peurifoy (.324), Keenan Innis (.310) and Kel Johnson (.298-10-34). The nation’s fourth-ranked recruiting class will augment the Jackets’ ACC title hopes.
24. USC (39–21, 18–12 Pac-12)
Last year, USC returned to the NCAAs for the first time since 2005. Senior RHPs Kyle Davis (3–3, 4.05, 6 saves) and Brent Wheatley (4–4, 4.50) were drafted last June but came back. Senior OFs Timmy Robinson (.295-7-53, 19 SBs) and David Oppenheim (.284-3-27) join top arm Marc Huberman (6–4, 2.36, 4 saves) and top returning bat Jeremy Martinez (.296) to buoy the Trojans’ hopes of returning to the postseason.
25. Iowa (41–18, 19–5 Big Ten)
The Hawkeyes’ rise in recent years under Rick Heller has been phenomenal. Though only four field starters return, six pitchers who posted a sub-3.50 ERA return to a loaded staff in Iowa City. There’s a lot of experience, led by SS Nick Roscetti (.303), OF Joel Booker (.235, 9 SBs), RHP Calvin Mathews (5–3, 2.45) and 1B/RHP Tyler Peyton (.337, 7–4, 3.03), who is an excellent dual-threat. Junior college All-America SS Mason McCoy was the MVP of the summer Northwoods League.
2016 Preseason All-America Team
C: Zach Collins, Miami
1B: Will Craig, Wake Forest
2B: Stefan Trosclair, Louisiana-Lafayette
SS: Donnie Walton, Oklahoma State
3B: Bobby Dalbec, Arizona
OF: Bryan Reynolds, Vanderbilt
OF: Corey Ray, Louisville
OF: Nick Banks, Texas A&M
OF: Buddy Reed, Florida
DH: JJ Schwarz, Florida
UTL: Brendan McKay, Louisville
SP: Alex Lange, LSU
SP: Kyle Funkhouser, Louisville
SP: Mike Shawaryn, Maryland
SP: A.J. Puk, Florida
RP: Zach Jackson, Arkansas
RP: Zack Burdi, Louisville
There's no better way to start game day than with an amazing breakfast. For that, we love pancakes. Or in this case, some Peanut Butter Banana Pancakes. Here's a fantastic recipe:
Kitchen gadgets needed: measuring cups, spoonula, frying pan, stovetop
Ingredients (makes 6-7 pancakes):
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup rolled oats
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 1/4 cups milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut butter for batter, plus more for serving
1 banana, sliced
Time commitment: 15-18 minutes
1. Stir the flour, baking soda, rolled oats and sugar in a large bowl.
2. Place the butter and peanut butter in a microwave-safe bowl. Heat it in the microwave for 20-second intervals, stirring in between, until everything has melted completely (usually just 40 seconds is enough).
3. Pour the melted butters (yes, butters) into the bowl o’ dry ingredients. Mix it in, and as you stir, add in the egg and milk.
4. Turn a burner onto medium heat, topping it with a frying pan. Once the pan’s heated for a couple minutes, pour a palm-sized amount of batter onto the pan. Top it with a few slices of banana, and once small bubbles form in the batter, flip it to the other side. When both sides are lightly golden, move the pancake to a plate and start another.
5. For added peanut butter flavor that won’t disappoint, lightly smear peanut butter between the pancakes and drizzle the top of the stack with maple syrup. The pancakes’ heat will cause the peanut butter to melt, resulting in a rich, velvety shortstack.
Jamie McMurray checks in at No. 12 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“When you look over at Ganassi, you look at the one year Jamie McMurray had. He won the Daytona 500 and he won the Brickyard. So obviously he has some talent,” a former driver says. “I think Ganassi needs to work on their cars so the talent can show up.”
“Jamie is not the greatest driver in Sprint Cup, obviously. He’s also far from the worst,” another industry insider says. “The problem is with the engineering back at the shop. The Ganassi organization was behind last year and can only hope that the rules changes coming in next year work to their advantage or they somehow find speed another way. Otherwise, 2016 will be more of the same where they can run up front once in a while, but not consistently. It’s now been two years since McMurray has won, and last year he led a total of just 14 laps.
“Most people focused on how he finally made the Chase for the first time in his career, but the fact is he led laps in only three races — one lap at Phoenix, nine at Texas in the spring and four at Richmond in the spring. He didn’t lead a single lap in any of the last 27 races. That’s pathetic, really, when you think about it and what they thought their real potential was going to be. Sure, they made the Chase; but they never threatened to win any races.”
Winless Wonder: McMurray found himself shut out of Victory Lane last season but posted his best average finish (14.9) since his sophomore season in Sprint Cup (2004). It’s that consistency that still landed him inside the Chase, his first postseason appearance in a long career and a sign he’s turned the corner on roller-coaster results that could hurt your roster.
The Shorter The Better: Six of McMurray’s 10 top-10 finishes last season came at oval tracks a mile or less. Only once in 12 starts did he run outside the top 15 (26th at Loudon) and finished runner-up at Phoenix and Martinsville.
Restrictor Plate Comeback? McMurray went 0-for-4 at his traditional strongholds of Daytona and Talladega in 2015. But don’t lay off too much; he was due for bad luck there. Four of McMurray’s seven career wins have come at those superspeedways.
Martin Truex Jr. checks in at No. 11 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“You can’t say enough positive things about the year Truex had in 2015,” an industry insider says. “His was the little single-car team that could — and did. They won at Pocono and started the year as hot as pretty much everyone this side of Kevin Harvick, going on to post 22 top-10 finishes on their way to an unlikely spot in the Championship in the season finale at Homestead. Bravo, bravo!
“Beginning this season, though, Furniture Row Racing will switch from fielding Chevrolets to fielding Toyotas, abandoning a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing that just seemed to be bearing fruit for a completely new one with Joe Gibbs Racing. It will be a real challenge for the entire team and will test the seemingly great chemistry between Truex and Cole Pearn, who really hit it off right from the start in Pearn’s first year atop the pit box last season. History shows that this kind of manufacturer switch, especially for a smaller team like Furniture Row, is likely to come with some growing pains that will make it difficult for Truex to match or better his pleasantly surprising results of a year ago.”
Will History Repeat: Truex’s career year last season included one win, eight top 5s, 22 top 10s and a fourth-place result in the season standings. He also posted a career-high 31 lead-lap finishes and led his most laps (567) since 2007. Those types of numbers make this veteran’s career totals deceiving; don’t be afraid to use him now at tracks where he’s traditionally struggled.
Monster Performance: Truex desperately wants to win again at hometown Dover, the site of his first NASCAR victory in ’07. He struck out last year, but an average finish of 7.5 in four starts with his current team, Furniture Row Racing, makes him a sure bet to run well there.
Right-Turn Risk: A 2013 winner at Sonoma, Truex has had spotty success on road courses since. He has yet to score a top-10 finish there or at Watkins Glen since taking over the No. 78 Chevy in 2014.
Super Bowl 50 is in the record books, which means it’s time for football to step aside and cede the stage to America’s pastime. While the 2016 MLB regular season doesn’t get started until April 3, baseball will soon be returning to diamonds in Florida and Arizona for spring training.
The first pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 17 with all teams present and accounted for by Feb. 22. Feb. 18 is a busy day, as 12 teams get things going, including the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals. From a full squad standpoint, Feb. 22 is when position players are set to start showing up, meaning fans will finally get a chance to see their favorite players again, or in some cases, a first glimpse of the newest members.
Whether you are going to follow your team from afar or get a chance to make a trip to Florida to see the Grapefruit League or to Arizona to watch the Cactus League in action, below you will find the locations key dates for all 30 MLB teams as they get ready to prepare for the upcoming season.
|Team||Location||Pitchers & Catchers||Position Players|
|Arizona Diamondbacks||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 17||Feb. 18||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|Atlanta Braves||Lake Buena Vista, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Baltimore Orioles||Sarasota, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|Boston Red Sox||Lee County, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|Chicago Cubs||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|Chicago White Sox||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|Cincinnati Reds||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 18||Feb. 23||Feb. 23|
|Cleveland Indians||Goodyear, AZ||Feb. 17||Feb. 19||Feb. 21||Feb. 23|
|Colorado Rockies||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 19||Feb. 25||Feb. 25|
|Detroit Tigers||Lakeland, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 23|
|Houston Astros||Kissimmee, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|Kansas City Royals||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|Los Angeles Angels||Tempe, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||Glendale, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Miami Marlins||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 19||Feb. 22||Feb. 22|
|Milwaukee Brewers||Phoenix, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 21||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Minnesota Twins||Lee County, FL||Feb. 22||Feb. 22||Feb. 27||Feb. 27|
|New York Mets||Port St. Lucie, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 19||Feb. 26||Feb. 26|
|New York Yankees||Tampa, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|Oakland Athletics||Mesa, AZ||Feb. 21||Feb. 21||Feb. 26||Feb. 26|
|Philadelphia Phillies||Clearwater, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 18||Feb. 23||Feb. 23|
|Pittsburgh Pirates||Bradenton, FL||Feb. 17||Feb. 19||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|San Diego Padres||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|San Francisco Giants||Scottsdale, AZ||Feb. 17||Feb. 18||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|Seattle Mariners||Peoria, AZ||Feb. 19||Feb. 20||Feb. 24||Feb. 25|
|St. Louis Cardinals||Jupiter, FL||Feb. 17||Feb. 18||Feb. 22||Feb. 23|
|Tampa Bay Rays||Charlotte County, FL||Feb. 19||Feb. 21||Feb. 26||Feb. 26|
|Texas Rangers||Surprise, AZ||Feb. 18||Feb. 19||Feb. 23||Feb. 24|
|Toronto Blue Jays||Dunedin, FL||Feb. 22||Feb. 22||Feb. 26||Feb. 26|
|Washington Nationals||Viera, FL||Feb. 18||Feb. 20||Feb. 23||Feb. 25|
Ryan Newman checks in at No. 13 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Ryan is the type of driver you can count on,” one former driver says. “He’s solid, and he’s with the right team for him right now. I think it’s actually a blessing — because Ryan is the best driver at RCR right now. We know that he’s fast and we know that he’s a good driver. But he’s about timed out.”
“He reminds me of Rocky Balboa,” a former crew chief says. “He’s not going to go quietly. And I think he carries that car. How do you judge him? Because none of his teammates run up front. So he’s the right driver for the right team, at least for the time being. He’s the Rocky Balboa of that team and of his generation. He’s too proud to go down, and I think he keeps a ride as long as everybody recognizes that he’s getting more out of the car than most would — even if he isn’t winning races any longer.”
“Let’s face it: RCR is behind and has been for a couple of years now,” another industry insider says. “That doesn’t help Ryan. But you can also take another look at this and see that Kurt Busch is getting a whole lot more out of the ride Newman left behind at Stewart-Haas Racing than Newman was. So yes, Newman is solid and can consistently pile up some top-10 finishes. But it’s now been more than two years since he last won a race, and in three of the last four years he’s led a total of 41 or fewer laps each season. His best years are clearly behind him, and the equipment he’s in isn’t the best any longer, either.”
Going the distance: Newman completed 10,374 laps in 2015. That was tops on the Sprint Cup circuit and the reason why he was in title contention despite just five top-5 finishes. With only five performances outside the top 20 in 36 starts, he’s one of the most consistent drivers you could pick up.
Vegas Vacation: Newman has a 5.0 average finish in two starts driving the No. 31 car in Vegas. Richard Childress Racing put all its cars inside the top 20 in both races, so it’s safe to bet on Newman again.
One step below: Newman remains winless in two seasons driving for Richard Childress Racing, leading just 61 laps during that stretch. The last time he was victorious more than once in a season? 2004.
Restricted: Newman is 1-for-8 on top-5 finishes with RCR at Daytona and Talladega, tracks where he’s typically a victim. He hates that type of racing; perhaps emotion is factoring in?
Kasey Kahne checks in at No. 14 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“I think Kasey Kahne is on his last leg right now. I’m surprised that he got a two-year extension (from Hendrick Motorsports),” a former driver says. “It seems like Kasey is very temperamental with the car. I can’t put my finger on it, but all I can say is this: The last 2-3 years of Kasey Kahne’s career, you would not know he’s a 17-time Cup winner.
“This year is his make-or-break year. (Team owner) Rick Hendrick cannot keep this at status quo. If Rick keeps the same crew chief all next year and it doesn’t work, then he’s going to have to make a change. Kasey has won 17 Cup races, but it’s almost as if he’s fallen off the face of the earth. If he would not have won 17 races earlier, he would not have been in the car this long.”
When The Slump Starts… Trust it. In each of his four seasons driving for Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has gone five races or more in a row without a top-10 finish. Last year, he posted a streak of 11 events outside the top 10, a midsummer slump that all but eliminated his Chase chances. One of the sport’s streakier drivers, Kahne often struggles to let bad finishes go, and it comes back to haunt him.
Down the Charlotte Chute: Kahne has four career victories at Charlotte Motor Speedway but only one with his current ride at Hendrick. Kahne has just one top-10 finish there in his last four starts and wound up dead last in October after a wreck.
Monster Step? Dover has been a tough track for Kahne, but it’s the only track the Cup Series visited twice last year where he posted top-10 finishes in both events. It’s one of the few tracks where you can count on the No. 5 car to perform.
The 2016 NASCAR season will soon be upon us. This feature and so much more can be found in this year’s Athlon Sports Racing Preview, available now on newsstands everywhere.
By Joe Menzer
Jeff Gordon has retired, and Tony Stewart is next in line for a rocking chair. Seven others who were full-time Sprint Cup drivers in 2015 either have already celebrated their 40th birthdays or will do so before the end of the 2016 season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., for goodness sakes, will turn 42 in October. Greg Biffle will turn 47 in December, and Matt Kenseth will be 44 in March. The others are six-time champion Jimmie Johnson (41 in September), 2014 champ Kevin Harvick (41 in December), Jamie McMurray (40 in June) and David Gilliland (40 in April).
None of these guys is going to drive forever — and most of them will be vacating some pretty sweet rides over the next few years. Having some true icons of the sport bowing out in relatively rapid succession would seem to be a cause of great concern for NASCAR, but, in fact, the opposite seems true. There is so much young talent lined up to take center stage that many long-time participants and observers of the sport could not be more excited to see what happens next.
“There are more really good drivers — phenoms is what I call them, literally — than ever in the history of racing,” insists former driver Kenny Wallace, now a television analyst for FOX Sports. “They’re lined up around the block.”
Jeff Hammond, a former Cup championship-winning crew chief who also now works as a television analyst for FOX, could not agree more. But he says the fact that there appears to be an abundance of young talent ready to blossom is no guarantee that all of it will pan out, something NASCAR will have to remember as it gingerly puts its best shoes forward in a budding new era.
“To say we’ve got an unusual amount of seemingly great young talent waiting in the wings, that’s very accurate,” Hammond says. “But today, hopefully more than ever, these young up-and-comers are more thoroughly vetted than in the past.
“If you’ve been around the sport as long as I have, you go back to when the Richard Petty-David Pearson era was kind of ending, along with Cale Yarborough. And you saw guys like Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte, potentially the Tim Richmonds of the world and Rusty Wallace coming on. And then you see them being replaced by guys like Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who are now being replaced by guys like Chase Elliott and the rest of this young talent.
“Then it really boils down to, how bad do these young men want to have a career in our sport? And are we going to give them enough time to mature and develop? Because I think the opportunities and the platforms to prepare them to become definitely winners in our sport and perhaps future champions have never been greater.”
Elliott, son of NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Bill Elliott, is at or near the top of virtually all lists of up-and-coming stars. But he’s far from alone.
Elliott will compete for Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year honors this year with Ryan Blaney, Brian Scott and Chris Buescher. But Elliott obviously is going to be in the best ride, replacing Gordon in the No. 24 Chevy for Hendrick Motorsports. He even inherits Gordon’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson. Elliott says he’s well aware of the heavy expectations that come with following in Gordon’s footsteps.
“The fans have been amazing to me, and I’m so appreciative of that,” Elliott says. “I know how rare this opportunity is and will work as hard as I can to make everyone proud.”
Rick Hendrick says he has no doubts Elliott will succeed.
“Chase brings the kind of intangibles that make him the total package as a driver,” Hendrick says. “Not only is he a special talent inside the racecar, but there’s a natural combination of competitiveness, work ethic and smarts that you rarely see.
“Chase’s personality and demeanor make him popular with teammates, fans and sponsors. He’s a great fit for our organization on many levels, and we feel he and Alan will be a successful combination. There’s a lot to be excited about.”
Yet Hammond says the key for Elliott will be patience. Not only patience from the young driver himself, but also from those around him within the Hendrick organization and outside of it — as in fans, media and sponsors alike.
“When you sign some of this young talent today, part of the process oftentimes is signing a sponsor to go along with them. Just like with Chase Elliott and NAPA,” Hammond says. “Hopefully Chase Elliott is a marketing success story for NAPA. But if he’s not, all of a sudden you’ve got the added pressure of the sponsor looking for performance to go with this hype that we’ve already drummed up for this young man. And now not only does he have the pressure of the owner and the team wanting him to do well, but we’ve added a major sponsor in the public view who is expecting the same thing.
“Developing young talent is fun to watch. But it is very fragile — because we’ve got to understand that a lot of these young men we’re touting and watching and enjoying at this point in time, they can’t even rent a car. Some of them are not even old enough to drink. And yet, we’re asking them to carry the future and the hopes of sometimes 150 to 200 young men and women in an organization to be successful.”
Elliott became the first rookie and youngest NASCAR national touring series champion in history when he was crowned the then-Nationwide (now XFINITY) Series champ in 2014 at the tender age of 18. Wallace compares him to none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.
“After watching both Dale Jr. and Chase Elliott, I think they’re two peas in a pod. I don’t know if they’ve ever looked at it like that, but from afar that’s what I see,” Wallace says. “Chase Elliott, for me, is a carbon copy of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Both of them basically shadowed their fathers. Chase was around his dad constantly at the racetrack. So was Dale Jr. You absorb that stuff. They both were very successful right away in (what is now) the XFINITY Series. They both won championships and they both won races.”
Transferring that to Cup success was no guarantee, however. For evidence of that, look no further than the struggles that two-time Nationwide Series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had to endure since moving to Cup. When discussing Elliott, Hammond also likens what the rookie will face this season to what Joey Logano went through as a rookie at Joe Gibbs Racing when Logano stepped into a ride being vacated by Stewart.
“The catch to all of this — and I’m not trying to rain on anybody’s parade when it comes to all this young talent — is how they handle the overall pressure as we raise their expectations for them,” Hammond says. “I think that’s the one thing that’s a disservice in our sport today. We rubber-stamp them the stars of the future, and then we want them to be the star now. We almost don’t give them enough time to deal with the ups and downs; we don’t give them time enough to mature.
“Joey Logano is a great example of what can happen to someone who has gone through the pipeline, looks like he is going to get it done, and then because of the set of circumstances you aren’t necessarily able to groom him the right way. Look how long it took him to develop — but look what he developed into. It just took more time because of the circumstances. … Who did he replace? Tony Stewart. And he had Tony Stewart’s team. So everybody wanted to know, ‘Why aren’t you doing what Tony Stewart did? You’re supposed to be so great. You’re ‘Sliced Bread.’ Where is it? I don’t see it.’”
Logano, of course, is a championship-contending Cup driver now. And he’s still technically one of the young guns, because he’s only 25 (he’ll turn 26 in May). He won a series-high six races last season, has won a total of 11 over the previous two and 14 overall in his Cup career.
But when he first started as Stewart’s replacement in the No. 20 car for Joe Gibbs Racing, Logano often seemed lost. He became the youngest winner of a Cup race when he captured a rain-shortened race at New Hampshire in June 2009 at the age of 19 years, one month and four days. But he won only one more time while with JGR and didn’t seem to find himself as a driver until after he left JGR following the 2012 season. He joined Team Penske, where he hit it off with crew chief Todd Gordon.
“Therein lies the quandary of any team,” Hammond says. “And this is where I hope our teams, overall, do recognize and understand that these things can take a little bit. Jeff Gordon was not made in the first year he drove for Rick Hendrick. I mean, he tore up everything coming and going. But Rick Hendrick was committed to him — and his faith in that talent paid 20-some years of dividends because of it. But it came with failure before success — and with Joey Logano, there was failure before success.
“And so I really think that should be the cry that we put out there for all of this young talent: Expect failure before success.”
It is difficult, though, when there is so much young talent bubbling just over the horizon. It’s not limited to Elliott and the others who will run for Rookie of the Year in Cup in 2016. It’s drivers such as Kyle Larson, who will be entering his third season in Cup despite being only 23; Austin Dillon, and his younger brother, Ty, who is expected to join big brother in Cup soon; 2015 Camping World Truck Series champion Erik Jones; and John Hunter Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek.
All of them are expected to be driving full time in Cup sooner rather than later. And of the group, many see Jones as having the greatest potential of them all.
“Of course we already have Kyle Larson here (in Cup). And when you start lining the rest of them up, this Erik Jones is just unreal. I think Erik is the best one of them all,” Wallace says.
Wallace bases his opinion on the fact that Jones already has shown extraordinary speed in all three NASCAR national touring series. Jones was only 18 when he won his first Camping World Truck Series race at Phoenix in November 2013. He’s since won six more times in that series while registering 18 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes in a total of just 40 career starts.
But that’s not all. He also won two XFINITY Series races in 2015, totaling 13 top-5 and 17 top-10 finishes in just 23 starts. And when Joe Gibbs Racing needed someone to jump in for Denny Hamlin after Hamlin’s neck tightened up during a long rain delay at Bristol last spring, they called on Jones, and he brought Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota home without a scratch.
“We threw him into something there,” team owner Joe Gibbs says. “It’s unbelievable he could handle a car like that under those circumstances. We didn’t have time to change seats, nothing. He got to the car five minutes before the race went back to green.”
So it was no surprise later in the season when Gibbs called upon Jones again — first to sub for the injured Kyle Busch at Kansas and then to sub for the suspended Matt Kenseth at Texas and Phoenix, respectively, toward the end of the year. Every time, Jones was fast right off the bat. He qualified 12th at Kansas, sixth at Texas and seventh at Phoenix — with his best finish a 12th at Texas.
“First of all, he won in the lower (super late model) division — winning the biggest race of them all in the Snowball Derby, outrunning Kyle Busch,” Wallace says. “No. 2, any time he gets in any make of car — and this is what puts him heads and heels above everybody else — he qualifies very well and shows speed right away. As opposed to where we see other young drivers get in a Cup car, good ones, and they don’t have the speed right away. I mean, Chase Elliott’s a very good driver, but he doesn’t have the speed right away that Erik shows.
“That’s just what I see. Erik gets up to speed right away. He’ll get in a Cup car, like he did Kyle Busch’s car, and jump right up into the top 10 in practice right away — and I think that’s pretty impressive. And I mean, they have thrown him to the wolves. He had no (practice) time. They were like, ‘Hey, get in this Cup car right now. Denny Hamlin’s hurt.’ And he gets in it, no practice, and does pretty well in the race. I think that’s what makes him stand out, for me, above everyone else.”
Of course, Jones isn’t even running in Sprint Cup full time just yet. He’s running a limited schedule in the top series this year, while running a full-time slate in the XFINITY Series.
“We’ve got a plan laid out for him,” Gibbs says. “It’s just not something we talk about in public yet.”
So while Elliott, Buescher and Blaney battle it out this year for Rookie of the Year honors in Cup and race weekly against the likes of other young guns like Larson, Logano and the 25-year-old Austin Dillon, the 19-year-old Jones will be dueling in the XFINITY Series with other up-and-comers such as Darrell Wallace Jr. (22) and Ty Dillon (who turns 24 on Feb. 27). Still other promising youngsters such as Tyler Reddick (20), John Hunter Nemechek (18) and Cole Custer (18) are working their way through NASCAR’s lower national touring series with an eye on finding their way to Cup.
It makes the overall future of the sport look blindingly bright even as some of its greatest stars begin to fade away.
“Once again, there is simply an abundance of driving talent just lined up in the pipeline,” Wallace says. “So they really need to do something extraordinary to make themselves stand out. It will be fun seeing who can do what to do that over the next couple of years.”
Hammond adds: “When you see young talent and you see somebody get in a racecar these days, especially at the top level but even in the XFINITY Series, backed by some of the major teams, you need to pay attention. They’re the real deal.”
Austin Dillon checks in at No. 16 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“Austin grew up a bit late last season, finally showing that he belongs in Sprint Cup,” an industry insider says. “His is an interesting situation. On one hand, he’s often criticized for being given too much too fast — supposedly because his grandfather, Richard Childress, also happens to be his car owner at Richard Childress Racing. On the other hand, it could be argued that because of his connection to his grandfather, he’s sometimes been subject to unfair, unwarranted criticism that has stunted his growth as a Sprint Cup driver.
“The bottom line, when it’s all said and done, is the end result on the track. And in 2015, Dillon at least showed some flashes that he belongs. Now it’s time for him to prove he can take the next step and start truly contending for wins and be one of the 16 drivers to make the 2016 Chase. This might be the year he supplants Ryan Newman as the most productive Cup driver at RCR.”
Beach bum: Yes, Dillon finished Daytona in July with his car in 1,000 pieces after a scary incident that left several drivers initially thinking the driver was seriously hurt (or worse). But Dillon emerged with a seventh-place result that was his third career top 10 at that Cup track in five starts. Add a pole for the 2014 Daytona 500, and it’s one of the few places where the third-year driver feels comfortable in a Cup car.
Michigan Man: Dillon has just one career top 5 at Michigan, a fourth, but that did come last August, and it’s clear he’s improving there. Seven starts total at the two-mile oval are a career high for him at any track; experience should help him in 2016.
Still Learning: Dillon ranked just 23rd in the “Fastest on Restarts” statistic, leaving him susceptible to being passed late. He also dropped from a 17.0 average start to a 21.0 average finish, a minus-4 gap that never leaves you feeling good.
Kyle Larson checks in at No. 15 in our countdown. Here’s what his season could look like on the track and on your fantasy team:
“I think all teams go through ups and downs,” says one former driver who doesn’t think the fact that Larson failed to win a race last season was all on Larson. “Even (team co-owner) Felix Sabates said it himself, that the Ganassi cars themselves need some work. So I think as tough as it is when it’s going on, you’ve got to be patient. When Kyle was running sprint cars and midgets, he could search around that dirt track and look for grip. In NASCAR, it’s very hard. The car has got to go.” …
“There’s no doubt after watching him win the XFINITY race at Homestead and watching him at the end of the Cup race there (to close the 2015 season), that’s his style of track,” a former crew chief says. “We’ve seen him run well at these tracks where he can chase grooves, like (Auto Club) Speedway. Give him a track with multiple grooves, where he can make the car work, and Kyle is going to stand out. But if you put Kyle Larson in a box, where you go to Indianapolis Motor Speedway and you can only run in this one groove, and it’s off. You’ve got to have the car.
“To sum it all up, Kyle Larson can use his talent on a racetrack where he can move the car around. But when you take him to the track where the car has to handle in one groove, the car’s got to go right. And right now, he’s just a victim, waiting for the engineering and stuff to catch up on that team. They’re a little behind.”
Sophomore Slump: A mythical curse surrounding a driver’s second season proved true in Larson’s case. He suffered drops in average finish, top 5s, top 10s and lead-lap finishes while watching his DNFs rise from four to six. The good news? Larson may be a cheap buy in salary leagues, and drivers with upward potential tend to rebound in their third seasons.
Which is which? Two of Larson’s career top-5 finishes came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2014. But last season he struggled, posting results of 31st and 17th. Such will be the problem for fantasy owners in 2016 — figuring out whether to expect “rookie Larson” or the guy who struggled in 2015.
Starting strong: Larson did improve his average start last season (13.3, 14th best). But he couldn’t hold his ground. He was dead last of 75 drivers measured in NASCAR’s “Closer” statistic (positions gained or lost over the last 10 percent of the race).
Need to whip up something quick and easy for your next tailgating event or game-day party? This recipe is the perfect pick: With just three ingredients — okay, four, if you spring for semisweet chocolate chips, like we did — it’s unbelievably easy to make.
The Reese's chocolate peanut butter spread makes these brownies taste like a fudgy-centered-yet-cakey-edged Reese’s Cup. There’s peanut butter flavor, but it doesn’t overpower the chocolatey, gooey essence that makes a brownie a brownie.
3-Ingredient Peanut Butter Brownies
Prep time: 5 mins
Cook time: 22 mins
Total time: 27 mins
1 jar Reese's Chocolate Peanut Butter Spread (or Jif's version)
½ cup flour
(Optional) Mix-In: 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. As it heats, mix the chocolate peanut butter spread, flour and eggs in a bowl, stirring just enough to combine and get rid of any big flour lumps. (Any more than that, and the cakier the brownies will get.)
2. Lightly grease the bottom of an 8"x8" or 9"x9" pan — a round cake tin works too — and pour the batter in. Bake for 20-22 minutes, or until the edges of the brownies start to pull away from the pan and a toothpick inserted into the center of the brownies comes out mostly clean.
Fuel up the RV and cash in those frequent flier miles, it is time to start checking off “bucket list” destinations. These are some of the best places to go and sights to see in 2016, spanning the calendar and the country. Ready… set… go!
Daytona 500 – Daytona International Speedway; Daytona Beach, Fla. (Feb. 21)
NASCAR’s first points race of the season is also its most prestigious. This year the Speedway will show off its new $400 million makeover. The venue now holds 101,500 fans over three concourses and has three times as many concession stands (and twice as many bathrooms) as before.
NHL Stadium Series – Red Wings at Avalanche; Coors Field; Denver (Feb. 27)
Tap the Rockies to watch what has become a new NHL tradition—the outdoor game. A 53-foot long, 96,500-pound mobile refrigeration unit keeps the 20,000 gallons of water on ice in the temporary rink.
MLB Spring Training – Yankees at Red Sox – JetBlue Park; Fort Myers, Fla. (March 15)
Even though the game doesn’t count in the regular season standings, the heated rivalry that makes this matchup compelling is on full display in the preseason. Plus, JetBlue Park has a Green Monster with seats inside.
March Madness opening weekend – Bellagio Hotel and Casino; Las Vegas, Nev. (March 17–20)
Let’s be honest: One of the most compelling reasons to watch the NCAA tournament is to bet on it. Make the viewing experience more interesting this year by anchoring yourself in the Bellagio’s Sports Book room that boasts 38 TVs and a river of libations. “The wagering action is fast and furious for four consecutive days,” says Jay Rood, VP of Race & Sports for MGM Resorts International.
WWE WrestleMania 32 – AT&T Stadium; Arlington, Texas (April 3)
The House That Jerry Built welcomes the world’s top professional wrestlers for a rumblefest. As with WWE itself, there is a lot of speculation about who will be there. One swirling rumor is a return of Stone Cold Steve Austin, who has hinted he might come out of retirement for this one.
Boston Marathon – Boston, Mass. (April 18)
In a city steeped in history, the Boston Marathon has been a tradition since 1897. The race has meandered along the same 26.2-mile point-to-point course, ending in the city center. Qualifying standards ensure only the swift get into the event. “The qualifying standards have become intertwined with the race itself,” says Race Director Dave McGillivray. “They help give Boston its true identity.”
Kentucky Derby 142 – Churchill Downs; Louisville, Ky. (May 7)
Depending on your style, you can customize race day to suit your tastes. Those looking for debauchery and madness should make their way straight to the infield, while those who prefer something more refined should head for the grandstands. In either location, you can suck down a mint julep while rooting for “your” horse to win.
100th Indianapolis 500 – Indianapolis Motor Speedway; Indianapolis, Ind. (May 29)
The Indy 500 is Woodstock for car fanatics with 200 mph laps, nightly concerts and plenty of tent camping on the grounds. The event has recently added an exclusive kind of camping on the track infield. “Glamping (glamorous camping) has become extremely popular,” notes Doug Boles, president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So come for the private tents and stay for the race.
Portland Timbers at Seattle Sounders – CenturyLink Field; Seattle, Wash. (Summer, TBD)
Trek to the Pacific Northwest to take in this heated rivalry that is the closest thing the U.S. has to a European-style football atmosphere. “Portland and Seattle have a 40 year history of battling it out on the pitch,” says Portland Timbers Army fan club board member Garrett Dittfurth. “From the fans to the players to the cities there just isn't a lot of love lost there.”
Fly fishing – Yellowstone River; Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota (early–late July)
Fishing the Yellowstone River gives the angler the opportunity to wade in one of the last and longest remaining undammed rivers in the lower 48 states, alongside elk, bison and sometimes bear. “We are fishing in the world's first national park for wild, native Yellowstone Cutthroat trout,” says Teton Floats guide Joe Morin. “It doesn't get much better.”
Summer Olympics (Games of the XXXI Olympiad) – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Aug. 5–21)
The Olympics remain well, the Olympics, of the sporting world. For two weeks, the entire planet pauses to tune into this spectacular event. Sure, coveted tickets are hard to find and room rates are high, but those who make the trip can take solace in the fact that they can finally wear that red, white and blue cape they’ve been dying to show off.
Bonneville Speed Week – Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah (Aug. 13–19)
Gearheads make an annual pilgrimage to the Utah desert to blast across the scorched Earth in muscle cars they’ve built themselves. It’s modern day drag racing with drivers pushing speeds of 400 mph on the eight-mile point-point course. “Everything about Bonneville is totally different from any other kind of racing around the world,” says driver Danny Thompson who did 419 mph in 2014. “You’re going two football fields a second.”
National Park Service Centennial – Yosemite (Calif.), Grand Canyon (Ariz.), Glacier (Mont.), Rocky Mountain (Colo.), Mammoth Cave (Ky.), Olympic (Wash.), Grand Teton (Wy.), etc. (Aug. 25, 100th anniversary)
The U.S. National Park Service celebrate its 100 birthday this year, so there is no better time to tromp around the some 84 million acres of outdoor space. “The national parks are great because they are truly democratic and are owned by all of us,” says Andrew White, spokesperson for Grand Teton. “More than anything, they teach us about ourselves, our past, and our future.”
Hike the Appalachian Trail – Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin, Maine (Spring/Summer/Fall)
This long walk in the woods—all 2,200 miles of it—winds through 14 states stretching from Georgia to Maine. The hazards are many—black bears, stinging mosquitoes and paralyzing blisters—but the payoff is to finish something only roughly 15,500 people have done since the full trail opened in 1937.
Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (CFB) – Bristol Motor Speedway; Bristol, Tenn. (Sept. 10)
Billed as the “Battle as Bristol,” this matchup hopes to set the record for the highest football game fan attendance ever, with 150,000 fans. The field will be located in the middle of the track infield and the stadium seating will be split in half evenly between the two teams’ supporters.
Ryder Cup – Hazeltine National GC; Chaska, Minn. (Sept. 30–Oct. 2)
Over the last 50 years, Hazeltine has hosted every premier championship offered by the USGA and PGA of America. The Europeans teams have won the last three Ryder Cups in a row, so the Americans are due for a win in the high-stakes biennial international golf tournament.
B.A.S.E. Jumping on Bridge Day – New River Gorge, W. Va. (Oct. 15)
Since 1980, B.A.S.E. jumping has been part of the state’s largest annual event. Nearly 100,000 spectators watch more than 400 jumpers leap off the 876-feet high New River Gorge Bridge in 30-second intervals. The landing patch is tight. “New jumpers will typically land in the water,” says volunteer coordinator Mark Kissner. “We have an old saying: ‘You dry faster than you heal.’ ”
By Matt McCue
There’s a reason Jerry Rice, 53, is nicknamed the “G.O.A.T.” (Greatest of All-Time). Not only does he own nearly every receiving record, but he is also arguably the greatest player in Super Bowl history. In four career Super Bowl appearances, Rice posted 33 catches for 589 yards (17.9 ypc) and eight TDs — with three rings (all with the 49ers), one loss (with the Raiders) and a Super Bowl MVP award. We caught up with Rice heading into the “Golden Super Bowl,” Super Bowl 50 in the Bay Area.
Growing up, what team did you cheer for to win the Super Bowl?
My team was the Dallas Cowboys with Roger Staubach, Tony Hill, Drew Pearson, fullback Robert Newhouse and Tony Dorsett. I dreamed of one day playing for the Cowboys, but I got picked by the San Francisco 49ers.
Does your Super Bowl XXIII MVP game mean more to you than the other two Super Bowl wins?
All of them had a significant part of making me the person that I am today. Super Bowl XXIII, being able to move the ball down the field on the final drive and win that game against Cincinnati. Super Bowl XXIV, being able to score three touchdowns in that game and then Super Bowl XXIX against the San Diego Chargers, being able to strike early and get the momentum going in our direction. I can’t just point to one.
You scored a record three TDs twice, against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXIV and the Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. What do you remember about those games?
Against Denver, I was not the primary receiver on the first one over the middle. I was the third option, but Joe (Montana) came back to me and that’s when I uncovered. What we noticed about Denver’s big safeties was that they liked to make contact, but they didn’t wrap up. So I got hit over the middle and I was able to bounce into the end zone. My second one was a circle post right before the half. My third one I took a shot over the middle that took the air out of me. My teammates ran down and picked me up and asked if I was okay. I said, “No.” The wind was completely knocked out.
You scored three more TDs against the Chargers while playing hurt. How did you play the biggest game of your life with a separated shoulder?
I had one situation where my jersey came over my pads, and I couldn’t put it back on. (Teammate) Deion Sanders had to put it back on for me. I somehow fought through the pain to raise my arms to make the catches.
Were you ever nervous before a Super Bowl?
I had nerves before every Super Bowl game. You hear players say they’re going to look at the Super Bowl like every other game. (Laughs) This one is much bigger. Before Super Bowl XXIII, I was up all night playing the first 15 plays over and over in my head. The next day I went over on the first bus, put my uniform on and decided to relax on a table in the locker room and fell asleep.
As a player you had the mantra, “Look good, feel good, play good.” Tell us about your style choices these days.
Van Heusen understands that life is a game of inches. Their new flex collar dress shirts provide that half-inch of flexibility around your neck and doesn’t compromise the look. For my style, I like to put different colors together, and I like to make a statement. I throw on a tie and a handkerchief.
Where should fans attending Super Bowl 50 go to have a good time in the Bay Area?
Crustacean is a fantastic restaurant that serves great crab legs and garlic noodles right in the city (San Francisco). Alcatraz and Fisherman’s Wharf are a must. And have drinks at the Continental Lounge in San Jose. We’re going to host some parties there and invite people to give them an insider’s look into the Super Bowl.
Interview by Matt McCue
Photography by Al Bello
Wardrobe by Van Heusen
Whether it’s playoff time or rivalry week, big games call for big viewing parties. And while you could serve the same old chips and salsa, you could also take it up a notch. You know what they say: Big players make big snacks for big games. Double or triple this dip recipe to feed a crowd of friends and fans — or tuck the bowl under your arm and watch the chip crumbs pile up on your shirt.
4 oz. light cream cheese
¼ cup ranch dressing
¼ cup hot wing sauce
½ cup shredded cheddar-jack cheese
1 cup shredded chicken breast
Flat-leaf parsley leaves, chopped
Chips (tortilla or pita)
1. Preheat oven to 350°F
2. In medium bowl, combine cream cheese, ranch dressing, wing sauce, ¼ cup cheddar-jack cheese and chicken breast.
3. Spoon into small baking dish, top with remaining ¼ cup cheddar-jack cheese.
4. Bake for 20 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly. Top with chopped parsley
5. Serve with chips
Recipe by Bobbi Burleson (BobbisKozyKitchen.com).
Athlon Sports & Life, in partnership with Geico, has released Trivia-Fu, a new sports trivia app to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl. The free app allows players to challenge friends or random opponents to trivia battles featuring 10,000 Super Bowl-related questions across 50 levels. Leaderboards keep track of players' progress, while points are awarded for increased levels of question difficulty (easy, medium, hard).
Gameplay is simple. Connect to Facebook to challenge a friend or go it alone and play against a random foe. Answer as many questions as you can to rack up points in each quarter, but remember to keep an eye on that play clock. Play smart, it only takes one wrong answer before you turn the ball over to your opponent.
Stuck on a question? No problem! Call a timeout and play a Coin Flip card to eliminate two incorrect answers, or maybe play the Substitution card to request a new question. You're limited to three timeouts per match, so use those cards wisely.
Think you know your Super Bowl trivia? Here are a few sample questions from the game to test your knowledge.
Easy: Who is featured in the famous “Hey Kid, Catch!” Coca-Cola commercial during the Super Bowl?
A. Joe Namath
B. Joe Greene
C. Joe Montana
D. John Madden
Medium: Which was the first team to play in three consecutive Super Bowls?
A. Miami Dolphins
B. Buffalo Bills
C. New England Patriots
D. Green Bay Packers
Hard: Who made the tackle on the “One Yard Short” play in Super Bowl XXXIV?
A. London Fletcher
B. Tommy Polley
C. Mike Jones
D. Keith Lyle
Answers: B. Joe Greene; A. Miami Dolphins; C. Mike Jones
In each issue of Athlon Sports & Life, we pick six of our favorite things you need to know about. They may be books, automobiles, games, gear, booze, apparel or whatever happens to be awesome. Here's what made our list this issue:
A fitness-tracking timepiece that balances form and function? Yes, please. We downloaded the watch’s phone app and had it synced up in minutes to track distance, steps and calories burned. You can customize the watch's look with various quick-release straps. The "Gift Set" version we tested came with two: an orange nylon strap and a black silicone/work-out friendly alternative. More traditional straps are available online. The battery life is estimated at more than one year, so there’s no need to recharge it.
Mission Belt (Sports Editions)
Besides the fact that you can show off your school spirit by displaying your team’s logo on the buckle, the Mission Belt is also cool in its own right. Since it locks in place without the use of holes, you can adjust it to fit perfectly around your waist. Licensing includes NCAA, NBA and NHL.
Sports Illustrated Super Bowl Gold: 50 Years of the Big Game
If the big game had a yearbook, this would be it. It’s comprehensive and perfectly executed from beginning to end. The historic photography is stunning, while the insightful commentary from players who were in the actual games make it hard to put down. $40 www.amazon.com
50 Years, 50 Moments: The Most Unforgettable Plays in Super Bowl History
Super Bowl MVP Jerry Rice compiled his list of the most iconic, strategic, and record-breaking moments in football history, from the Super Bowl’s inception to today. The 464-page book is an engaging must-read for NFL fans. $29.99 www.harpercollins.com
Every beer drinker loves the taste of a well-poured draft beer. For most, that’s impossible to achieve at home. Until now. This portable, battery-powered machine gives your bottled, canned or growlered beer that unique draft-poured taste. How? They claim the device uses high-frequency sound waves and oscillation to create a great head and flavorful taste. And that's exactly what it does. $169.99 www.fizzics.com
Jack Daniel’s Gentleman Jack
If you’re looking to ease someone into a love of whiskey, Gentleman Jack is a great place to start. This Tennessee whiskey is charcoal mellowed before going into the barrel; then it’s mellowed again after reaching maturity to make it extra smooth. The distillery calls it “double mellowed.” And after multiple samples, so were we. It’s sweet to the nose, and offers a short finish. Perfect for any tailgating occasion. $39 www.jackdaniels.com
The Super Bowl may be the NFL’s biggest game, but only two teams get the opportunity to share this stage each season. Because of this, many of the game’s greatest players, including members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, were never given an opportunity to play for the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Here are the 10 NFL legends who never got their chance to enjoy the Super Bowl spotlight.
1. Barry Sanders, RB (1989-98)
Playoff record: 1–5
Best team: 1991 Lions (12–4 record, lost in NFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1991 (NFC Championship Game, 41–10 loss at Redskins)
After winning his playoff debut 38–6 against the Cowboys, Sanders lost his next five postseason games. Shockingly, one of the most exciting players of all-time was limited to 13 or fewer carries in four of his six playoff contests. The only time No. 20 was given more than 20 carries, he ripped off 169 yards in a 28–24 loss to the Packers. Although Sanders ran wild every year on Thanksgiving Day, he never showed up to the party on Super Bowl Sunday.
2. Deacon Jones, DE (1961-74)
Playoff record: 0–2
Best team: 1967 Rams (11–1–2 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1969 (Divisional Round, 23–20 loss at Vikings)
The “Secretary of Defense” was known for head-slapping opposing offensive linemen, but the two-time Defensive Player of the Year must have been doing some head-scratching after retiring with zero playoff wins on three different teams — and zero Super Bowl appearances — despite an unofficial total of 173.5 sacks during his Hall of Fame career.
3. Dick Butkus, LB (1965-73)
Playoff record: 0–0
Best team: 1965 Bears (9–5 record, missed postseason)
Arguably the greatest middle linebacker in history, Butkus played for George Halas — the legendary coach whose name graces the trophy awarded to the winner of the NFC Championship Game — and on the same team as Hall of Fame triple-threat playmaker Gale Sayers. Despite looking great on paper at the time and even better in historical hindsight, Butkus’ Bears were unable to make the playoffs, which is the first step toward advancing to the Super Bowl.
4. Gale Sayers, RB (1965-71)
Playoff record: 0–0
Best team: 1965 Bears (9–5 record, missed postseason)
Butkus and Sayers were drafted Nos. 3 and 4 overall, respectively, by the Bears in 1965. But the Hall of Fame duo were unable to translate their individual achievements into team success. Sayers notched a record six TDs in a single game — with nine carries for 113 yards and four TDs, two catches for 89 yards and one TD, and five punt returns for 134 yards and one TD as a rookie — but failed to score even a single Super Bowl trip.
5. Earl Campbell, RB (1978-85)
Playoff record: 3–3
Best team: 1979 Oilers (11–5 record, lost in AFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1979 (AFC Championship Game, 27–13 loss at Steelers)
The “Luv Ya Blue” bulldozer was unable to take down the powerful “Steel Curtain” during back-to-back AFC Championship Game losses. In two painful defeats at Pittsburgh, Campbell had a combined 39 carries for 77 yards (1.97 ypc), two catches for 15 yards, and zero TDs. Campbell’s two scoreless games against the Steelers were the only two playoff games in which he failed to find the end zone.
6. O.J. Simpson, RB (1969-79)
Playoff record: 0–1
Best team: 1974 Bills (9–5 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1974 (Divisional Round, 32–14 loss at Steelers)
Another victim of the mighty Steelers, the Juice had better luck than Campbell — with 18 touches for 86 total yards and one TD — but was unable to lead the Bills to victory in what would be his only postseason appearance. The actor and defendant never basked in the spotlight of the Super Bowl but he was seen by millions during his days as Lt. Nordberg in the "Naked Gun" franchise and his starring role in the Trial of the Century.
7. Eric Dickerson, RB (1983-93)
Playoff record: 2–5
Best team: 1985 Rams (11–5 record, lost in NFC Championship Game)
Closest call: 1985 (NFC Championship Game, 24–0 loss at Bears)
Upon first glance, the single-season rushing yards record holder posted solid playoff numbers. But take off the goggles and you’ll see that Dickerson’s 248-yard, two-TD outburst during a 20–0 win over the Cowboys in 1985 accounted for one-third of his career postseason rushing yards and half of his total TDs.
8. LaDainian Tomlinson, RB (2001-11)
Playoff record: 4–5
Best team: 2006 Chargers (14–2 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 2010 (AFC Championship Game, 24–19 loss at Steelers)
Infamously sulking on the sideline, injured and wearing in a Darth Vader facemask and trench coat at New England — after just two carries for five yards — was clearly the low point of L.T.’s playoff career. Staying on the dark side, three of his five playoff losses were by margins of three points, one defeat came by four points and the most lopsided was a nine-pointer.
9. Tony Gonzalez, TE (1997-2013)
Playoff record: 1–6
Best team: 2003 Chiefs (13–3 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 2012 (NFC Championship Game, 28–24 loss vs. 49ers)
It took Gonzo 16 seasons to finally earn a playoff win. Then, with the Falcons holding a 17–0 lead over the 49ers in the NFC title game, it looked like the future Hall of Fame tight end would be punching his ticket to the Super Bowl and possibly riding off into the sunset as a champion. The massive comeback by the Niners would be the all-time great’s final playoff game.
10. Warren Moon, QB (1984-2000)
Playoff record: 3–7
Best team: 1993 Oilers (12–4 record, lost in Divisional Round)
Closest call: 1993 (Divisional Round, 28–20 loss vs. Chiefs)
Moon won five consecutive Grey Cups and was twice named Grey Cup MVP in the Canadian Football League. But in these United States south of the border, the former CFL champion was unable to translate his prior success to the NFL Playoffs. Moon’s waning moment came in the worst collapse in postseason history, as his Oilers watched a 35–3 lead evaporate into a 41–38 overtime loss against the Frank Reich-led Bills.
So your friends are coming over for the big game and you're looking to prepare something different. We've got you covered. These chicken tenders are breaded in Cool Ranch Doritos and baked, so they have all the zesty kick without the grease.
Doritos-Crusted Chicken Sliders Recipe
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken tenderloins
1 bottle salad dressing (to marinate; Italian, Chipotle Ranch or plain old Ranch are great)
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 bag flavored tortilla chips (we like Doritos)
1 package slider buns 1 head Bibb lettuce
1 bottle Ranch dressing
1. Halve the chicken tenderloins and place them in a gallon-sized resealable bag and coat with salad dressing. Let it marinate for 30 minutes or longer.
2. Preheat the oven to 350° F. As the oven heats, set up three bowls for breading the chicken. Fill the first bowl with a mixture of flour, cayenne pepper and black pepper. Crack eggs into the second bowl and whisk them together to create an egg wash. Smash Doritos and place them in the third bowl.
3. Dip each piece of chicken in the flour mixture, then the egg wash, then the crumbled Doritos. (You may need to sprinkle more chips on top to thoroughly coat each piece.) Place each breaded piece of chicken on a parchment-lined baking sheet.
4. Bake chicken in the oven for 27-30 minutes, or until fully cooked. (There should be no pink showing when you cut ‘em in half.)
5. Assemble the sliders: Cut each bun in half. Place a piece of lettuce on the bottom bun, then the chicken, then drizzle with ranch and top with the other half of the bun.