Dale Earnhardt Jr. Wins His 2nd Daytona 500

For the second time, and the first since 2004, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the Daytona 500.  The 56th annual race, at Daytona International Speedway was marred by an over six-hour rain delay after just 38 laps of racing, but once action resumed under the lights, it made for one of the most competitive 500s in recent memory.  Junior led a race-high 54 laps after starting in the 9th position, running his 15th 500, and recorded his 20th career NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win.  Junior didn’t take the lead for the first time until lap 131, so he led 54 of the last 70 laps.

The final 162 laps, under the lights, were much more exciting for the fans than the first 38.  The race, as a whole, featured 42 lead changes among 19 drivers, and the stat of lead changes is only measured at the start-finish line.  According to NASCAR.com, there were 177 passes for the lead in all, and 11,977 green flag passes, both track records.

Earnhardt Jr. had finished 2nd in 3 of the previous 4 Daytona 500s, and the victory was his first win in his last 56 starts, since Michigan in June 2012.  Junior had to hold off Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, and Brad Keselowski over the final laps, including a two-lap dash after the final restart, to claim the victory.  The win was Earnhardt’s 3rd (in a points-paying event) since moving to Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, after previously winning the 500 driving the #8 Chevrolet for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., the team started by his father before his death.

Ironically enough, one of the big storylines leading up to the 500 was the return of the #3 car to the Sprint Cup Series for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, Sr., as it was driven to the pole by rookie Austin Dillon.  So, the 3 led the field to green, while an Earnhardt led it to the checkers.

Steve Letarte won his first 500 as a crew chief, although he had won the race previously as a crew member for Jeff Gordon, and did so in his final career attempt.  Starting in 2015, Letarte will move to the NBC broadcast booth, so this will be his final season on the #88 pit box.  Many believe there is, therefore, a greater sense of urgency for both Letarte and Earnhardt Jr., because both realize if they want to win together, they have to do it now.  Perhaps that sense of urgency helped contribute to a flawless Speedweeks, leading to a Daytona 500 victory.  While Junior didn’t win everything (in fact, he didn’t win anything until the 500), he ran well in every event and kept his equipment clean (with the exception of a Sprint Unlimited crash that he didn’t cause; that was not in the car the 88 team planned to run in the Daytona 500).

With the win, Earnhardt now leads the series standings, and with the new Sprint Cup points format, he has almost guaranteed a spot in the Chase Grid.  The only way he would not qualify would be in the event of the series having 17 or more race winners in the first 26 races, and Junior being 17th in points out of those drivers, or the event of Junior not attempting all the races without a valid medical excuse for his absence, or falling out of the top 30 in points (those last two scenarios won’t happen).


2014 Daytona 500 Results

(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Led, Points)
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr., 9, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 54, 48
2. Denny Hamlin, 4, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 16, 43
3. Brad Keselowski, 33, Penske Racing, Ford, 13, 42
4. Jeff Gordon, 6, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 0, 40
5. Jimmie Johnson, 32, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 15, 40
6. Matt Kenseth, 3, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota, 0, 38
7. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 34, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 0, 37
8. Greg Biffle, 25, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford, 8, 37
9. Austin Dillon, 1, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 1, 36
10. Casey Mears, 28, Germain Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 34
11. Joey Logano, 35, Penske Racing, Ford, 2, 34
13. Kevin Harvick, 38, Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet, 0, 31
17. Carl Edwards, 30, Roush Fenway Racing, 8, 28
19. Kyle Busch, 37, Joe Gibbs Racing, 19, 26
35. Tony Stewart, 21, Stewart-Haas Racing, 0, 9

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 2/24

There is more movement in this week’s rankings than any previous week, with only positions 3, 4, and 7 staying the same.  That’s right, there’s a new number one in these rankings for the first time since December 9.  In fact, I’ve been arguing with myself since late Saturday night how the top four teams should be ranked, as all four are playing at an extremely high level and will all be threats to make deep NCAA runs.  The same applies (the part about arguing with myself) over the middle 5 teams, and the same applies for the bottom 6.  The later the season goes, the less sure I get about these things, which is backwards from what you’d expect.  Syracuse is no longer the top-ranked team in the nation, after their first two losses of the season, to Boston College and Duke, and falls to 4th in the AP Poll.  Duke fell one spot to 6th with their loss to North Carolina, but avoided falling more by beating Syracuse.  Virginia moves up two spots to 12th, while North Carolina is ranked for the first time since early January, coming in at 19th after their upset of Duke, part of a 9-game winning streak.

(Due to personal time constraints, here is an abbreviated version)

1.  Duke (22-6 overall, 11-4 ACC, Last Week: 2nd)
Last Week:  at Georgia Tech (W, 68-51), at North Carolina (L, 74-66), Syracuse (W, 66-60)
This Week:  Virginia Tech (Tues.)

2.  Syracuse (26-2, 13-2, 1st)
Last Week:  Boston College (L, 62-59, OT), at Duke (L, 66-60), at Maryland (W, 57-55)
This Week:  at #12 Virginia (Sat.)

3.  Virginia (23-5, 14-1, 3rd)
Last Week:  at Virginia Tech (W, 57-53), Notre Dame (W, 70-49)
This Week:  Miami (Wed.), #4 Syracuse (Sat.)

4.  North Carolina (20-7, 10-4, 4th)
Last Week:  at Florida State (W, 81-75), Duke (W, 74-66), Wake Forest (W, 105-72)
This Week:  at NC State (Wed.), at Virginia Tech (Sat.)

5.  Clemson (17-9, 8-6, 8th)
Last Week:  NC State (W, 73-56), at Georgia Tech (W, 63-55)
This Week:  at Wake Forest (Tues.), Maryland (Sun.)

6.  Pittsburgh (20-7, 8-6, 5th)
Last Week:  Florida State (L, 71-66)
This Week:  at Boston College (Wed.), at Notre Dame (Sat.)

7.  Maryland (15-13, 7-8, 7th)
Last Week:  Wake Forest (W, 71-60), Syracuse (L, 57-55)
This Week:  at Clemson (Sun.)

8.  Florida State (16-11, 7-8, 8th)
Last Week:  North Carolina (L, 81-75), at Pittsburgh (W, 71-66)
This Week:  Georgia Tech (Sun.)

9.  NC State (17-10, 7-7, 6th)
Last Week:  at Clemson (L, 73-56), at Virginia Tech (W, 71-64)
This Week:  #19 North Carolina (Wed.), Miami (Sat.)

10.  Miami (14-13, 5-9, 12th)
Last Week:  Notre Dame (W, 71-64), Boston College (W, 69-42)
This Week:  at #12 Virginia (Wed.), at NC State (Sat.)

11.  Boston College (7-20, 3-11, 15th)
Last Week:  at Syracuse (W, 62-59, OT), at Miami (L, 69-42)
This Week:  Pittsburgh (Wed.), at Wake Forest (Sat.)

12.  Notre Dame (14-14, 5-10, 10th)
Last Week:  at Miami (L, 71-64), at Virginia (L, 70-49)
This Week:  Georgia Tech (Wed.), Pittsburgh (Sat.)

13.  Georgia Tech (13-14, 4-10, 11th)
Last Week:  Duke (L, 68-51), Clemson (L, 63-55)
This Week:  at Notre Dame (Wed.), at Florida State (Sun.)

14.  Wake Forest (14-13, 4-10, 13th)
Last Week:  at Maryland (L, 71-60), at North Carolina (L, 105-72)
This Week:  Clemson (Tues.), Boston College (Sat.)

15.  Virginia Tech (9-17, 2-12, 14th)
Last Week:  Virginia (L. 57-53), NC State (L, 71-64)
This Week:  at #6 Duke (Tues.), #19 North Carolina (Sat.)

Story of the Last Week:  Boeheim Loses Cool, Game
This is really a sad story, as Saturday’s top 5 matchup between Syracuse and Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium was a well-played game and was still in doubt at the time of Jim Boeheim’s ejection.  Instead of me boring you with a play-by-play of what happened, you can watch it here:  http://www.theacc.com/#!/video-detail/o2cW9zazoF84JPW7ZOeTzacqCq37jik4.  The call wasn’t the best call, as live I thought the play was a block, not a charge, but it was really a 50-50 call, with both sides having a legitimate beef if they didn’t get the call.  That being said, Boeheim’s reaction was completely unnecessary, and the two technical fouls he was assessed were the nail in Syracuse’s coffin.  Without the technicals, it’s Duke ball, up 2 with 10.4 seconds left.  After the technical foul shots, Duke had the ball up 5, and the game, for all intents and purposes, was over.

Game of the Week:  #4 Syracuse at #12 Virginia
This is one of the biggest games all year in the ACC, and the winner will simply need to win out to win the ACC regular season title.  This will easily be the biggest game ever at John Paul Jones Arena, which has only been around since 2006.  While Virginia is leading the ACC, I don’t think their necessarily the best team; they simply haven’t been upset, and their only games against the current top 4 are at Duke on January 13, which is their only conference loss, and at home against North Carolina on January 20.  Syracuse righted the ship on Monday night, with a close win at Maryland, after back-to-back losses at home against Boston College and on the road at Duke.  Syracuse is still among the best teams in the nation, and is very much still in the competition for a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  They’ve played well in tough road environments all year, even having a chance to win late in Cameron Indoor Stadium.  The building will be rocking, and Virginia will make it close, but Syracuse will be too much for the Cavaliers.
Syracuse 53, Virginia 48.

Daytona 500 Preview

After countless hours of practices, an exhibition race, pole qualifying, qualifying races, and preliminary events, the Daytona 500 is finally just hours away.  The 500 is the “Super Bowl of Stock Car Racing” starts the season, unlike big events in other sports.

Recapping the week, Denny Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited, Austin Dillon won the 500 pole, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin won the Budweiser Duels, Kyle Busch won the Camping World Truck Series event, and Regan Smith won the Nationwide Series event.  Additionally, the UNOH Battle at the Beach (a pair of races for two NASCAR-sanctioned short track series, the K&N Pro Series and the Whelen Modified Series, run on a .375-mile short track constructed on the Daytona backstretch) was won by Daniel Suarez (K&N Pro) and Doug Coby (Whelen Modified).

Now before I get to my list of picks for the Daytona 500, and my official pick to win it, let’s look at some trends.  The defending Sprint Cup Series champion hasn’t won the 500 since Dale Jarrett in 2000, who was also the last driver to win the 500 from the pole, and the last to win the Sprint Unlimited and the 500 in the same year.  The defending champion of the 500 hasn’t won it since Sterling Marlin in 1995, (five days before I was born).  Only twice since 1998 has a winner of one of the Gatorade Duels won the 500 (that’s 2-for-30), and when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth did it in 2004 and 2012, those were both unusual 500s (2004 ended with a strung out, 120-lap green flag segment, and 2012 was run on Monday night/early Tuesday morning due to rain, and included a jet dryer explosion).  Those trends have eliminated Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, and Matt Kenseth from being my pick for the 500, although all 4 will appear in my power rankings of top contenders.  Here are the twelve biggest threats to win the 56th Great American Race:

Worth Mentioning:  Kurt Busch (runner-up in 2005, 2008), Kyle Busch (past winner of Sprint Unlimited, Daytona July race), Carl Edwards (2011 runner-up), Austin Dillon (pole sitter), Trevor Bayne (2011 winner), Ryan Newman (2008 winner), Martin Truex Jr. (qualified 2nd, but will start at rear in back-up car), David Gilliland (2007 pole sitter, 2011 3rd place, 2013 Talladega runner-up)

12.  David Ragan
Ragan starts 43rd, dead last, although you can win from anywhere at Daytona.  In 2011, Ragan, not Trevor Bayne, might have been Cinderella, if it weren’t for an illegal lane change while leading the 500 on a late restart.  Later that year, he won the Daytona July race, and he won last spring at Talladega, the other restrictor plate track on the NASCAR circuit.  He’s certainly a dark horse, driving for unheralded Front Row Motorsports, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 34 car run well.

11. Michael Waltrip
Yeah, he’s 50, and a win would make him the oldest winner of the 500 in history.  But the guy can still drive in a restrictor plate race.  All 5 of Waltrip’s career Sprint Cup wins have come on restrictor plate tracks, with 3 at Daytona and 2 in the 500.  Yeah, he hasn’t won in 11 years, but finished 4th at Talladega last spring and 5th at Daytona in July.

10.  Tony Stewart
Stewart is the modern-day Dale Earnhardt, in that he’s won multiple times in every event at Daytona, except in the 500.  He’s won the July race 4 times, along with 3 Budweiser Duels, 3 Sprint Unlimiteds, and a record-tying 7 Daytona Nationwide Series races during Speedweeks.  He finished 2nd in 2004 and 3rd in 2008, as well as having some heartbreak with crashes and mechanical failures.  Earnhardt eventually won the 500, in 1998, and so will Stewart, and it may be this year.

9.  Jeff Gordon
While Gordon hasn’t run as well in recent Daytona 500s, that has mainly been due to bad luck, usually an accident.  However, Gordon won 3 Daytona 500s, in 1997, 1999, and 2005, 4 Daytona July races, and finished 2nd in his Duel race on Thursday night behind Denny Hamlin.  It’s never wise to not include the #24 Chevrolet in a list of potential Daytona contenders, even at age 42.

8.  Jamie McMurray
In 2010, McMurray quietly looked solid throughout Speedweeks, but didn’t win anything until the Sunday, when he won the Daytona 500, one of his 7 career Sprint Cup wins, 3 of which have come at restrictor plate tracks.  This week, like 2010, the #1 Chevrolet has quietly had a solid Speedweeks, and was in contention in his Duel on Thursday before being caught up in a last lap crash.  He will try to do what Trevor Bayne did in 2011, winning the 500 in a back-up car.

7.  Greg Biffle
While Biffle only has one career Daytona win, in the July race back in 2003, he has run well as of late in the 500, finishing 3rd in 2010 and 2012, and 6th last year, and has sat 2nd at the white flag twice, in 2010 and 2013.  Biffle ran 3rd in 500 time trials, although he finished 12th in his Duel.  With his recent good finishes in the 500, he is certainly a driver to watch in this year’s event.

6.  Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion has never won at Daytona, although he has won twice at Talladega, NASCAR’s other superspeedway.  Keselowski finished 4th in the 2013 Daytona 500, after dueling for the lead with Jimmie Johnson with about 10 laps to go.  He also ran very well in his Duel on Thursday, contending for the win until a pit road speeding penalty and a mechanical issue.  He is getting better the more he races at Daytona, so look out.

5.  Jimmie Johnson
Last year, Jimmie Johnson laid back during all practice sessions during Speedweeks, and even in his Duel, to protect his equipment, and it led to his 2nd Daytona 500 win, adding to his 2006 victory.  This year during Speedweeks, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have repeated their strategy from a year ago, in an attempt to repeat the result.  However, no one has repeated as 500 winner since 1994-95 (Sterling Marlin), and the defending Sprint Cup champion hasn’t won the 500 since 2000 (Dale Jarrett), so while Johnson certainly could repeat, he’ll have to beat history to do it.  He’ll be in a backup car after running out of gas and crashing on the final lap of Thursday’s Duel.

4.  Kevin Harvick
Harvick is almost always near the top of the list of 500 favorites by the end of Speedweeks, as he always runs well at Daytona, winning 3 times in the Sprint Unlimited, a duel in 2013, and the 2007 500.  He finished 2nd to Matt Kenseth in Thursday’s Duel, although that finish was disallowed after his car failed post-race inspection, meaning he will start 38th instead of 5th.  In addition to his 500 win, he finished 2nd in 2009 and 4th in 2003-04.  Expect Harvick to run up front, as he usually does at the Speedway.

3.  Matt Kenseth
Kenseth won Thursday’s Duel, which was the 2nd Duel win of his career.  The only other time he won a Duel, he won the 500, back in 2012, in addition to his 2009 win in the 500.  However, Duel winners haven’t done well over the last 15 years in the 500, with Kenseth’s 2012 run being an exception.  He led the most laps in last year’s 500, but an engine failure ended his day early.  There is a chance of rain in Daytona Beach on Sunday, which is good for Kenseth; both of his 500 wins were in races affected by rain.

2.  Denny Hamlin
Hamlin had a tough 2013, suffering a broken back and finishing a career low 23rd in the series standings.  His momentum began to change when he won the season finale at Homestead, and that spilled into this year’s Speedweeks, as Hamlin won the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel, his 2nd career win in both events.  The win in the duel made Joe Gibbs Racing the first team to ever sweep a set of Duel races.  Hamlin will be, according to many, the favorite, but history is not his side.  Hamlin is the 16th driver to win both the Sprint Unlimited and his Duel in the same Speedweeks, and none of the previous 15 won the 500.

1.  Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Often times, the winner of the 500 isn’t someone who has won an event or two during Speedweeks, but instead someone who has run well, and showed promise and ability to lead, and just not gotten the finishes to show for it.  Junior finished 9th out of the 18-car field in the Sprint Unlimited after being involved in a crash he didn’t cause with about 10 laps to go.  He finished 5th in his Duel, and may have run higher had he not gotten boxed in the pack late, and had led laps early in the race.  Junior also has plenty of experience, finishing 3rd in 2005, 2nd in 2001, 2010, 2012, and 2013, and winning in 2004, in addition to 3 Duel wins, 2 Sprint Unlimited wins, and 1 July race win.  His runner-up in 3 of the last 4 500s was the stat that clinched it for me that he was the man to beat in this year’s 500.

So, what do these picks mean?  Absolutely nothing.  The 500 has always been, and will always be, a crapshoot, and half the drivers I mentioned may not even be around at the finish due to the seemingly inevitable crash that takes out a large portion of the field, known as “The Big One”.  In some years, the wreck has come in the first handful of laps, while in many years, it comes late, but whenever it comes, the hopes of many for a 500 win go out the window.

All we can do is plan for a good race, and hope to see another classic finish, such as the ones we saw in 1976, 1979, 1990, and 2007 (and there are many, many others I could have mentioned here).  While Hamlin pulled away with the Sprint Unlimited on the final lap, every other race in Speedweeks has seen a spectacular finish, with photo finishes in Duel 1, and both the Truck Series and Nationwide Series events, and a big last lap crash in Duel 2.  Regardless of what happens, we can all sit back and enjoy one of the great sporting events in the world, the 56th running of the Daytona 500.




2014 Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Austin Dillon, Martin Truex Jr.
Row 2:  Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon
Row 4:  Marcos Ambrose, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Paul Menard
Row 6:  Josh Wise, Brian Scott
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Trevor Bayne
Row 8:  A.J. Allmendinger, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  David Gilliland, Landon Cassill
Row 10:  Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer
Row 11:  Tony Stewart, Jamie McMurray
Row 12:  Cole Whitt, Terry Labonte
Row 13:  Greg Biffle, Bobby Labonte
Row 14:  Danica Patrick, Casey Mears
Row 15:  J.J. Yeley, Carl Edwards
Row 16:  Brian Vickers, Jimmie Johnson
Row 17:  Brad Keselowski, Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Row 18:  Joey Logano, Michael Annett
Row 19:  Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick
Row 20:  Reed Sorenson, Justin Allgaier
Row 21:  Parker Kligerman, Michael Waltrip
Row 22:  David Ragan
Failed to Qualify:  Eric McClure, Joe Nemechek, Morgan Shepherd, Ryan Truex, Michael McDowell, Dave Blaney


Daytona 500 Champions
1959 Lee Petty
1960 Junior Johnson
1961 Marvin Panch
1962 Fireball Roberts
1963 Tiny Lund
1964 Richard Petty
1965 Fred Lorenzen
1966 Richard Petty (2)
1967 Mario Andretti
1968 Cale Yarborough
1969 Lee Roy Yarbrough
1970 Pete Hamilton
1971 Richard Petty (3)
1972 A.J. Foyt
1973 Richard Petty (4)
1974 Richard Petty (5)
1975 Benny Parsons
1976 David Pearson
1977 Cale Yarborough (2)
1978 Bobby Allison
1979 Richard Petty (6)
1980 Buddy Baker
1981 Richard Petty (7)
1982 Bobby Allison (2)
1983 Cale Yarborough (3)
1984 Cale Yarborough (4)
1985 Bill Elliott
1986 Geoffrey Bodine
1987 Bill Elliott (2)
1988 Bobby Allison (3)
1989 Darrell Waltrip
1990 Derrike Cope
1991 Ernie Irvan
1992 Davey Allison
1993 Dale Jarrett
1994 Sterling Marlin
1995 Sterling Marlin (2)
1996 Dale Jarrett (2)
1997 Jeff Gordon
1998 Dale Earnhardt
1999 Jeff Gordon (2)
2000 Dale Jarrett (3)
2001 Michael Waltrip
2002 Ward Burton
2003 Michael Waltrip (2)
2004 Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2005 Jeff Gordon (3)
2006 Jimmie Johnson
2007 Kevin Harvick
2008 Ryan Newman
2009 Matt Kenseth
2010 Jamie McMurray
2011 Trevor Bayne
2012 Matt Kenseth (2)
2013 Jimmie Johnson (2)
2014 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2)

The Significance of 3

Today marks the 13th anniversary of the death of NASCAR icon Dale Earnhardt, after crashing in the final turn of the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.  Most years during Daytona Speedweeks, Earnhardt’s life, death, and legacy are remembered, and particularly on February 18, by many of those in the garage area who raced against Earnhardt on the track and were friends with him off the track.  And when these folks think of “The Intimidator” on the track, the first thing that comes to mind is the black #3 car that he drove for so many years, and that hasn’t been seen in a Sprint Cup race since.  Earnhardt began at Richard Childress Racing for good in 1984, after a brief stint with the team in 1981, and although he originally drove the blue and yellow colors of Wrangler, by 1988 he was driving the all black paint scheme and white number that is so synonymous with the Earnhardt name today.

There’s a lot of people out there that only look at the 3 as an Earnhardt number, and rightfully so, as the only driver a 35-year old fan would remember driving the number is Earnhardt.  However, there is a lot of history behind the 3 from before Earnhardt ever drove it.

The car has made 1,134 starts and won 97 times.  Sure, most of the wins were by Earnhardt (67 of his 76 career wins), but there were 30 wins for the number before Earnhardt, and 73 drivers have turned laps driving the number (that will be 74 on Sunday, I’ll get there momentarily).

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, in NASCAR’s early days, it was common for a car’s owner to also be its chief mechanic, and big name mechanics like Ray Fox and Smokey Yunick commonly ran the 3.  Before the Daytona 500 began in 1959, the last two beach course races in Daytona were won by Cotton Owens in 1957 and Paul Goldsmith in 1958, both driving car #3.  Fireball Roberts won the inaugural Daytona July race in the 3.  The first 3 wins of David Pearson’s career, including the 1961 World 600 in Charlotte, and the last 2 wins of Buck Baker’s career all came in the 3, and 9 of Junior Johnson’s 50 career wins were in the 3 car.  Buddy Baker also won 2 races, including a World 600, driving the number.  Among the others that drove #3 include legends Marvin Panch, Fred Lorenzen, Bobby Isaac, and NASCAR Hall of Famers Cale Yarborough and Tim Flock.

From 1976 to 1981, Richard Childress drove a self-owned 3 car, in the beginning stages of the history of Richard Childress Racing.  Childress never won, but finished as high as 3rd at Nashville in 1978.  He retired during the 1981 season after the opportunity to sign Earnhardt, and a Wrangler sponsorship, came.  After a brief stint in the 3, at the suggestion of Childress, Earnhardt went to drive for Bud Moore, a long-standing, well-funded team which, at the time, gave Earnhardt a better opportunity.  Ricky Rudd came to RCR for the 1982-83 seasons, scoring his first 2 wins in 1983.  Earnhardt and Rudd swapped rides, as Earnhardt came back to Childress and Rudd went to drive for Moore.

And the rest is history.  Earnhardt won 6 of his 7 titles while driving for Childress, a ride he never left for the rest of his career.  The stylized 3 logo that we all see on so many bumper stickers and t-shirts is a symbol of a man and his racing career, but also the connection the fans seemed to have with Earnhardt.  He was the everyman, who had come up through the ranks from the small mill town of Kannapolis, NC.  And the man was taken away in a flash, doing what he loved, driving a racecar.  He was blocking to protect the position of his friend and employee, Michael Waltrip, and his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and made contact with Sterling Marlin that shot him up the track, into Ken Schrader, and head-on into the concrete turn 4 wall.

A week later, the 3 team continued to race, as Childress did what everyone who knew Dale said he would want the team to do, but changed the car number to 29 for rookie driver Kevin Harvick.  So in many ways, the history of the 3 should include the 23 wins for Harvick while driving the 29 to a trio of 3rd place finishes in points.  Childress vowed the 3 would not be raced in any of the 3 NASCAR national series unless an Earnhardt or Childress family member was doing the driving.  Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove the 3 in a pair of NASCAR Nationwide Series races in 2002, and winning at Daytona, before running it again in the Daytona Nationwide Series race in July 2010, and winning.  He then said he, too, was done with #3.  And along came Austin Dillon.

Austin Dillon is the grandson of Richard Childress.  For Dillon, 3 didn’t start out as a racing number; it was his baseball number.  Dillon was a member of the team from the Southwest Forsyth Little League in Clemmons, NC that appeared in the 2002 Little League World Series, wearing #3, in honor of both his grandfather and Earnhardt, one of his heroes.

Austin and his brother, Ty Dillon, got into racing by the time they were old enough to drive.  Beginning at the lower levels of NASCAR racing, Childress asked both what number they wanted to run.  Ty said he wanted to run #2, the number run by his father Mike, who had 15 top tens in a 154-race Nationwide Series career.  (Mike Dillon also drove the 3, albeit unofficially, for one race, substituting for Earnhardt after Earnhardt blacked out on the opening lap of the 1997 Southern 500 at Darlington.)  Austin said he wanted to run the 3, that number he had used to honor both Childress and Earnhardt during his baseball days, and acknowledged the significance of the number on the side of any racecar at any level, particularly one run by the grandson of Childress.

Back to Earnhardt (briefly).  Before he drove the 3, he had won Rookie of the Year in 1979 and his first Sprint Cup Series title in 1980, driving car #2 for owner Rod Osterlund.  Keep that pattern in mind.

Now back to Austin Dillon.  By 2010, after a couple of years running races in smaller NASCAR-sanctioned touring series, Dillon moved to the Camping World Truck Series full-time.  After a rookie record 5 poles, and wins at Iowa and Las Vegas, Dillon won Rookie of the Year, and finished 5th in the series standings.  In 2011, he won 2 more races, and won the series championship.

In 2012, Dillon moved to the NASCAR Nationwide Series, which is analogous to triple-A baseball.  Dillon won a pair of races in the series, sweeping the season’s 2 events at Kentucky Speedway, finished 3rd in the standings, and won Rookie of the Year.  In 2013, he won the series championship.  Dillon proved his consistency in winning the title, becoming the first champion in any of NASCAR’s 3 national series without winning a race during the season.

So it’s definitely time for Dillon to be rewarded with a Sprint Cup Series ride.  Dillon actually started 11 races in the Sprint Cup Series in 2013, running 5 races for RCR (in #33, though), 4 for Phoenix Racing, and 2 as a replacement for the injured Tony Stewart at Stewart-Haas Racing.  His high finish was 11th at Michigan, although he was running 3rd at the white flag in Stewart’s #14 at Talladega before being involved in a crash while being aggressive and going for the win.  As mentioned, the starts for RCR were in car #33, so this year, when Dillon will run the full Sprint Cup Schedule, and compete for Rookie of the Year, he will be running #3 in the Cup Series for the first time.

Oh yeah, about that car number…

While Dillon has brought the 3 back to both the Camping World Truck Series and the Nationwide Series, bringing it back to the premier level of NASCAR racing is a different story.  Seeing the 3 on a Sprint Cup Series track will bring back memories for many, while allowing other younger fans a chance to become better educated about the life and legacy of the “Man in Black.”  I could say I am one of those younger fans, as I was 6 days short of my 6th birthday when Earnhardt died.  While I remember Earnhardt’s death, I wasn’t old enough to understand what the 3 stood for when I saw it on the track.  Most people I’ve heard, both from the inside of the sport and from its fan base, are supportive of the number returning to the track.  Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. said it was a good thing his father’s number was back.  However, there are still those who don’t want to see anyone except their hero behind the wheel of an RCR #3 car.

One of the skeptics was Dale Earnhardt’s mother, Martha.  At first she said she wasn’t sure whether or not she liked the idea of Dillon driving the number, although she has said it will be alright as long as the car isn’t painted like Earnhardt’s (it won’t be), and is competitive with Dillon behind the wheel (it will be).  There are also some among Earnhardt’s fans that say that no one, no matter who it is, should drive Dale’s car number.  It could be argued that, while some know the sport’s history and just aren’t receptive to seeing someone new in the 3, others don’t realize the deep amount of history behind the car number.  Even without Earnhardt, the number would rank alongside 11 and 43 among the great car numbers throughout the sport’s history.

In addition, I had a thought about the way the skeptics feel.  If it wasn’t Dillon to bring back the number, eventually Childress would retire as a car owner or grow old and die, and would be out of the sport.  And, therefore, eventually, once those who were around during Earnhardt’s career are gone from the garage, someone would have a notion to bring the number back; perhaps it would be someone with no business returning the iconic number to the track.  This way, with Dillon, driving, it’s a Childress family member, and Childress is honoring his friend, Earnhardt, through running the number, but doing so completely on his own terms.  And I heard someone point out over the weekend that Childress seems as happy at the track and as focused at the track as he’s been since the death of Earnhardt.  While that may be simply due to the fact that one of his drivers is also his grandson, I have reason to believe that seeing the 3 back on the track for the first time since Austin Dillon was 10 is part of the reason for the glimmer in his eye.  If something as simple as a car number can reenergize a 68-year old man, why not let him re-enter the number into the sport?

It will become official in this Sunday’s Daytona 500, when Dillon makes his first start in a 3 car in Cup Series competition.  Buzz surrounded preseason testing at Daytona, when the 3 made its first appearance, even if it was in a testing format.  And Dillon didn’t disappoint, running he fastest lap of the session, putting #3 back on top of the Daytona scoring pylon.  Another step forward was taken on Saturday, when Dillon ran 4th and 2nd fastest in a pair of sessions preparing for 500 pole qualifying.  And then it happened.  Sunday, Dillon won the pole for the 56th Daytona 500, becoming the 4th driver to do so in the 3 car, joining Buddy Baker in 1969, Ricky Rudd in 1983, and Dale Earnhardt in 1996.  While many shrug of pole qualifying as all engine and aerodynamics and no driver (they’ve got a point, particularly considering last year’s pole winner finished 27th in season points), I think it may be a sign of things to come, both in the rest of Daytona Speedweeks, and throughout the 2014 Sprint Cup season.  With an obviously fast car, and a good superspeedway racer behind the wheel, Dillon is an excellent dark horse pick to pull off the Hollywood ending and win the Daytona 500.

Given the history of #3, I would be far from surprised.

(By the way, Ty Dillon ran the 3 in the Camping World Truck Series after Dillon moved on, and will run it in the Nationwide Series this year after Dillon’s move to Cup.)

Further Reading:  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2013/12/11/dale-earnhardt-number-3-austin-dillon-richard-childress-2014-sprint-cup-series.html

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 2/17

While the only movement in this week’s power rankings was at positions 6-8 and 11-13, this past week was a big week for the ACC.  Syracuse remained undefeated, despite close calls against Pittsburgh and NC State.  Unfortunately, the Duke-North Carolina game was moved from this past Wednesday to this coming Thursday due to the winter storm that paralyzed the east coast.  That means, though, there will be 15 ACC games this week, instead of the normal 14.

1.  Syracuse (25-0 overall, 12-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
Somehow, someway, the Orange managed to improve to 25-0 overall, and 12-0 in league play, with 2 nail-biting wins over the last week.  Wednesday night at Pittsburgh, it took a Tyler Ennis buzzer-beating 3 from well beyond NBA range to give the Orange a 58-56 win.  Up to the point of that shot, the Orange had led during the 2nd half for a total of 6 seconds.  Saturday, NC State gave Syracuse enough openings before giving them the late basket that was the difference by goaltending, with the Orange winning 56-55.  The Orange remain #1 in the nation, and will remain the undisputed #1 until they lose.  That loss could come this week, because after the Orange host Boston College on Wednesday night, they will travel to #5 Duke on Saturday for a rematch of their epic overtime win over Duke on February 1.

2.  Duke (20-5, 9-3, 2nd)
Due to the postponement of the Duke-North Carolina game, the Blue Devils had just one game this past week, in which they beat Maryland 69-67 in the last scheduled meeting of two old rivals, allowing to Devils to move to #5 in the AP Poll.  Also due to the postponement, Duke will have to play 3 games this week.  First, they will travel to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech on Tuesday night.  Then, on Thursday, they will play the makeup game in Chapel Hill against the Tar Heels.  It all culminates Saturday night when #1 Syracuse comes to Durham as the Blue Devils try to avenge their previous loss to the Orange.

3.  Virginia (21-5, 12-1, 3rd)
Very quietly, the Virginia Cavaliers are putting together a very solid season.  After a 61-53 win over Maryland and a 63-58 win at Clemson, Virginia now sits at 12-1, just a half game behind Syracuse for the conference lead, and moves to 14th in the AP Poll.  They remain 3rd in these rankings since their only loss is to Duke, putting Duke ahead of the Cavaliers, and since Duke has a better overall résumé.  This week, they could very well continue their hot play, as they will take on a pair of bottom half ACC teams, first traveling to Virginia Tech on Tuesday before hosting Notre Dame on Saturday.

4.  North Carolina (17-7, 7-4, 4th)
The only game of the week for the Tar Heels was their Saturday contest against Pittsburgh, which they won, 75-71, after a few extra days off due to the weather and the postponement of their game against Duke.  The Heels, riding a 6-game winning streak after a 1-4 start to conference play, were the first team out of the new AP Poll (so technically they’re ranked 26th).  They can change that with a good week this week, starting tonight at Florida State, before hosting #5 Duke on Thursday, in a make-up game, and Wake Forest on Saturday.  With the exception of Duke, the other two teams the Heels play this week are really slumping.

5.  Pittsburgh (20-6, 8-5, 5th)
The Panthers fell out of the AP Poll from their previous spot of 25th after a couple of tough losses.  The Panthers led all but 6 seconds of the 2nd half Wednesday night against undefeated, top ranked Syracuse, before losing 58-56 on Tyler Ennis’ buzzer heroics.  Then they traveled to Chapel Hill on Saturday, only to lose a close 75-71 outcome.  The Panthers have lost 4 out of 6, although the 4 losses are to the top 4 teams in the conference, and the two wins were both in overtime.  Pitt does not play again until Sunday against Florida State, which will be their first game in 8 days.

6.  NC State (16-9, 6-6, 8th)
After beating Wake Forest convincingly, 82-67, the Wolfpack of NC State traveled to Syracuse and nearly knocked off the undefeated Orange, losing 56-55.  During the final minute, when Syracuse had fouls to give, Wolfpack forward TJ Warren was fouled just before moving into the shooting motion on a layup, causing many to say the play should have been continuation.  Instead, State had to inbound, turned the ball over, and committed a goal tend on the other end that was the difference.  The Pack are in the midst of a 3-game road trip, with games at Clemson this Tuesday and at Virginia Tech this Saturday still to come, before coming home for 3 out of their final 4 games.

7.  Maryland (14-12, 6-7, 7th)
Despite a pair of losses over the past week, Maryland stays 7th in these power rankings.  Why?  The losses were a 61-53 road loss to Virginia that was closer than the score indicates, and a 69-67 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium, where no visitor has won all year, when the final shot by the Terrapins rolled out instead of rolling in the basket.  Maryland played well in both contests, giving their ranked opponents tough tests as the visitor, and for that they should be commended.  As for actually winning, they’ll have a good shot at that when a struggling Wake Forest team visits the Comcast Center on Tuesday night.

8.  Clemson (15-9, 6-6, 6th)
Clemson falls 2 spots in this week’s rankings, as the Tigers are currently in a 3-game losing streak.  Tuesday night, a trip to South Bend provided some “free basketball”, with Notre Dame winning 68-64 in double overtime.  Saturday, in a matchup of the conference’s top 2 defenses, Virginia came to Clemson and won 63-58.  While the loss to Virginia wasn’t a surprise (no one has beaten them except Duke), the loss to the Irish was a bit of an upset, as the Tigers came into that game 3.5 games ahead of the Irish in the conference standings.  The Tigers can write the ship this week, with a home game against NC State on Tuesday and a rematch with Georgia Tech Saturday after their previous meeting, which was won 45-41 by Clemson.  The game with NC State is huge for both teams, as both try to work their way onto the NCAA bubble.

9.  Florida State (15-10, 6-7, 9th)
The Seminoles had an up-and-down week, first losing at home to Miami, 77-73, before beating Wake Forest on the road, 67-60, coming back from an early 16-point deficit.  FSU had previously defeated Miami by 10 in Coral Gables before the loss, and had lost by 25 to a sub-par Wake team a year ago, and got rid of some demons with the win (no pun intended).  This coming week will be huge for the NCAA Tournament chances of a team now projected to be on the outside looking in for the first time all season.  Tonight, the Seminoles host North Carolina, in a series in which something interesting always seems to happen.  Sunday, Florida State travels to Pittsburgh.  A win in either one of these games, or both, would help the Seminoles tournament hopes.

10.  Notre Dame (14-12, 5-8, 10th)
For the first time since the first week of January, and for the first time ever in ACC play, the Irish of Notre Dame have a 2-game winning streak.  It came with a double overtime, 68-64 home win over Clemson, and a 73-69 road win against Boston College, which was the first road win of the season for the Irish.  The win over Clemson was Notre Dame’s first over one of the mid-pack teams in the ACC, with their previous wins coming over Duke, from the top tier of the league, and Virginia Tech and Boston College (twice), from the bottom tier.  The Irish will have a couple of chances this week to pick up their second road win, as they travel to Miami on Wednesday and #14 Virginia on Saturday.

11.  Georgia Tech (13-12, 4-8, 13th)
Very quietly, and with a couple of exceptions, the Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech are playing relatively well as of late.  In their only game of the past week, which was moved from Wednesday to Thursday due to “Snowpocalypse”, the Jackets beat Boston College, 74-71.  And with that, and the struggles of some of the teams around them, they move up to 11th in these rankings, the highest they’ve been since December 9.  The weekend they had off sets up perfectly, as they had extra time to prepare for Tuesday’s game at home against #5 Duke, who could be caught looking ahead to games with North Carolina and Syracuse.  Saturday, Tech hosts Clemson, who they almost beat at Littlejohn just a couple of weeks ago.

12.  Miami (12-13, 3-9, 12th)
The Hurricanes of Miami had a strange week.  First, they went up to Tallahassee and beat their in-state rivals, Florida State, 77-73, after previously losing the Seminoles by 10 at home.  Then they went to Virginia Tech, and lost to one of the conference’s bottom 2 teams in a 52-45 game that was poorly played all around.  Miami is the only ACC team to lose to Virginia Tech, but they’ve lost to the Hokies twice.  They only stay at 12th in these power rankings based on the strength of their win over the Seminoles, and the struggles of Wake Forest.  After two straight games on the road, this week the Canes have back-to-back home games, hosting Notre Dame on Wednesday and Boston College on Saturday.

13.  Wake Forest (14-11, 4-8, 11th)
With a 4-3 start in conference play, the Demon Deacons were 14-6 and seemed as if they had righted the ship in coach Jeff Bzdelik’s 4th season after a questionable hiring and lackluster record.  But after an 82-67 loss to NC State, who they had beaten earlier in the season, and a 67-60 home loss to Florida State after blowing a 16-point lead, the Deacs have lost 5 straight to drop to 4-8 in conference play and 14-11 overall.  According to what I’ve read through other blogs and social media, the loss to Florida State may have been the nail in the coffin for Bzdelik’s firing at the end of the season.  As for the coming week, Bzdelik will have 2 chances to improve on his 2-29 conference road record at Wake, with games at Maryland on Tuesday and at North Carolina on Saturday.

14.  Virginia Tech (9-15, 2-10, 14th)
The Hokies had a week to prepare for Saturdays’ matchup with Miami, and it showed, at least somewhat, in a 52-45 win over the Hurricanes.  Tech is now 0-10 against ACC opponents not named Miami, and 2-0 against Miami, who happens to be the ACC’s defending champions (although the team is much different this year).  The win over the Hurricanes was the first game of a 3-game home stand, as this week they host 14th-ranked Virginia on Tuesday before hosting NC State on Saturday.  Speaking of coaches on the hot seat, you have to wonder about the future status of Hokies coach James Johnson.

15.  Boston College (6-19, 2-10, 15th)
And speaking of coaches on the hot seat, you also have to wonder about Boston College coach Steve Donahue.  As a bad season keeps getting worse, unlike Virginia Tech, it’s been close losses that have plagued the Eagles.  This past week, they lost twice by a total of 7 points, losing at Georgia Tech, 74-71, before allowing Notre Dame’s first road win, losing at home, 73-69.  Now the Eagles hit the road, traveling first to #1 Syracuse on Wednesday to attempt a monumental upset, before heading to Miami on Saturday.  The Eagles could win out, and win in all 5 rounds of the ACC Tournament, and would still be under .500 overall and just over it in conference play.

Games of the Week:

#5 Duke at North Carolina (Thursday, 9:00 PM ET)
I picked for this game last week, and it was moved to this Thursday due to inclement weather.  Here is my paragraph from last week’s post (copied and pasted, with the numbers updated):
In the first of two annual meetings between these fierce rivals, Duke travels up “Tobacco Road” to play North Carolina in the Smith Center.  Duke has won 3 out of the last 4 meetings in Chapel Hill and, although the Tar Heels are playing very well, I think that trend will continue.  The Heels have won 6 in a row, mostly in convincing fashion, and while none of the games qualify as their best performance of the season (I’ll give that to their road win at Michigan State), this has been their best stretch of the season.  Duke, however, is also playing some of their best basketball, having won 7 out of 8 with the loss coming in overtime at Syracuse (and they played well in that game, too).  Now, while I do believe Duke will win, North Carolina should make this interesting.
Duke 83, North Carolina 78.

#1 Syracuse at #5 Duke (Saturday, 7:00 PM ET)
The rematch of the best college basketball game so far this season, Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win at home against Duke, is almost here.  Neither team has lost since the February 1 classic, validating that they are the two best teams in the conference (sorry Virginia, you’re a close 3rd), and two of the best in the nation.  That makes this game the biggest game this year in the ACC, and one of the biggest nationally.  The way this series kicked off at the Carrier Dome was special, but now we get a chance to see how it kicks off at Cameron Indoor Stadium.  Duke has won 30 straight games at home, and 15 straight in conference play.  Syracuse has had a lot of close calls lately, threatening their undefeated record, and they are going into a building where I’m not sure the Miami Heat could leave with a win.
Duke 67, Syracuse 63.

NASCAR Season Preview

A new NASCAR season is upon us, beginning with the exhibition event, the Sprint Unlimited (formerly the Budweiser Shootout), on Saturday night in Daytona, before the official start to the new season with next Sunday’s Daytona 500.  There’s a lot of excitement down in Daytona, for several reasons.

One reason is the new points format.  Drivers will be eliminated as the season (particularly the Chase) goes along, with the top 4 drivers racing a winner-take-all showdown in the season’s final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.  The so-called “Chase Grid” has received both praise and criticism both throughout the garage area and the racing media, although most of the feedback has been positive.  More on the Chase Grid format, and particularly the 2014 edition, is coming up.  For more explanation of the format itself, read my post here:  https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/nascar-changes-chase-format/

Another change that has the garage roaring with more than just the engines is the new qualifying format.  While the lineup for the 56th Daytona 500 will be set as usual, starting with the March 2 race at Phoenix the Sprint Cup Series will begin what has been called “knockout qualifying” by some.  In the past, every car would take to the track by itself for a 2-lap time trial, with the fastest lap being recorded as that car’s qualifying time, and the fastest time winning the pole.  Now, there will be multiple cars on the track at the same time, and eliminations will be instituted for more excitement in the process.  At tracks longer than 1.25 miles (with the exception of road courses), all drivers will turn laps for 25 minutes, before a 5 minute break.  Then the top 24 will run for 10 minutes, before another 5 minute break.  The 12 fastest will run a final, frantic 5-minute stint, racing for the pole.  At tracks shorter than 1.25 miles, and at the 2 road courses, the first segment will be 30 minutes, followed by a 10-minute break and only one more segment, in which the fastest 12 will run for 10 minutes.  This format brings excitement with numerous cars on track at once, and the window of time used for a qualifying broadcast being shortened to an hour from the former 2 or 3 hour qualifying programs.

Finally, a handful of drivers are with new teams, or are new to the Sprint Cup Series altogether.  Kevin Harvick moves from Richard Childress Racing to drive the #4 Budweiser Chevrolet for Stewart-Haas Racing.  He will be joined at SHR by Kurt Busch, who will drive the #41 Haas Automation Chevrolet after moving from Furniture Row Racing.  Leaving Stewart-Haas is Ryan Newman, who will drive the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing.  The #78 Furniture Row Chevrolet ride left by Busch will be taken by Martin Truex Jr., after he left Michael Waltrip Racing after the team lost NAPA’s sponsorship in the aftermath of last year’s Richmond debacle (https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/napa-drops-waltrip-truex-after-scandal/).  Speaking of MWR, Brian Vickers takes over the #55 Aaron’s Toyota full-time in 2014 after sharing it with Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin for parts of the last 2 seasons, including a 2013 win at New Hampshire.  AJ Allmendinger returns to NASCAR full-time after racing both IndyCar and NASCAR last year while trying to repair a reputation damaged by a 2012 drug suspension, driving the #47 for JTG Daugherty Racing, who switched from Toyota to Chevy in the offseason.

Perhaps the biggest news, when it comes to team changes, is the return of the #3 Chevrolet for the first time since the death of Dale Earnhardt, as Austin Dillon, who is Richard Childress’ grandson, brings the fabled number back to the Sprint Cup circuit after winning both a Nationwide Series title in 2013 and a Camping World Truck Series title in 2011 driving #3.  Childress will only allow a member of the Earnhardt or Childress family to drive The Intimidator’s number.  Other rookies include Michael Annett (#7 Flying J/Pilot Chevrolet for Tommy Baldwin Racing), Kyle Larson (#42 Target Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing), Justin Allgaier (#51 Brandt Chevrolet for the newly rebranded HScott Motorsports, formerly Phoenix Racing), Alex Bowman (#23 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Ryan Truex (#83 Dr. Pepper/Burger King Toyota for BK Racing), Cole Whitt (#26 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing), and Parker Kligerman (#30 Swan Energy Toyota for Swan Racing).  This is the biggest class of rookies I can ever remember in my years following NASCAR.

Among those not racing full-time in the 2014 season are Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte, and Mark Martin.  Burton and Labonte will run part-time after their contracts with full-time rides expired, with Burton leaving Richard Childress Racing, and Labonte leaving JTG Daugherty Racing.  Martin began 2013 running part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing, but filled in for Tony Stewart after Stewart’s broken leg in August for 14 of the last 15 races before announcing he would continue at Stewart-Haas in an advisory role, not running any races in 2014 and beyond.

Now, let’s look at what I’m projecting to happen with the 2014 season.  First, I projected the first 26 races (picking a winner), and there were, surprisingly, 16 different winners, filling out the entire “Chase Grid” first round.  Here are the 16, in the order that they would be seeded going into the Chase:

Jimmie Johnson (3 wins), Matt Kenseth (3 wins), Jeff Gordon (3 wins), Kevin Harvick (2 wins), Kyle Busch (2 wins), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (2 wins), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Tony Stewart (1 win), Clint Bowyer (1 win), Kurt Busch (1 win), Brad Keselowski (1 win), Greg Biffle (1 win), Ryan Newman (1 win), AJ Allmendinger (1 win), Marcos Ambrose (1 win).

This projection has, among others, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano, and Martin Truex Jr. missing the Chase.  Edwards would certainly be the biggest surprise, but his close calls running for titles in the past have been based on consistency, and I didn’t project him to win a race in the so-called regular season.  Other potential sleepers include Brian Vickers, Jamie McMurray, Austin Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Paul Menard, and Kyle Larson.  And by the way, the wins for Allmendinger and Ambrose both came on road courses.  While both may struggle on ovals (Ambrose is more likely to struggle than Allmendinger), a win on a road course would get them into the Chase.

Starting the Chase is the Challenger Round, with races at Chicago, New Hampshire, and Dover.  Here is how the field is projected to rank after the 3 races, with the top 12 advancing:

Moving On: Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Denny Hamlin (1 win), Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Ryan Newman
Eliminated:  Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose

The elimination of Biffle, and not Newman, came down to 1 finishing position at one of the 3 tracks (I ranked the drivers 1-16 at each track, and added the results).

Next, the series moves onto the Contender Round, with races at Kansas, Charlotte, and Talladega.  (You thought elimination races for the last 10 years of the Chase format at Richmond were wild; wait until we have an elimination race at Talladega!)  Here is how the field stacks up, with the top 8 advancing:

Moving On:  Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kasey Kahne (1 win), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1 win), Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman

This time the last spot came down to a tie, with Gordon winning based on having more wins throughout the entirety of the season.  With the last race of that round coming at Talladega, I can certainly see a photo finish deciding who moves on.

With 4 races remaining, the Eliminator round begins, as the field is cut from 8 to 4 after the 3 races at Martinsville, Texas, and Phoenix.  Here is how those 8 rank in those 3 events:

Moving On:  Jimmie Johnson (2 wins), Matt Kenseth (1 win), Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon
Eliminated:  Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kasey Kahne

Once again, the final spot came down to 1 point (and it was ironically Jeff Gordon battling with Clint Bowyer, at Phoenix, the site of their brawl in 2012).  With that, it comes down to the 3 drivers who battled for the title at Homestead in 2013, with the addition of a 4-time Cup champion to the mix.  The easiest part of all these projections was the Homestead race, as it is only 1 race, and the highest finisher wins the title, plain and simple.  Here is the final projection:

Champion:  Jimmie Johnson
Eliminated:  Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Gordon

As much as it would alienate many within the NASCAR fan base, I am picking Jimmie Johnson to win his record-tying 7th Sprint Cup Series title.  While his stats at Homestead aren’t that good, each time he’s won the title there he hasn’t had to do anything spectacular, he’s just had to finish.  Johnson is very good on 1.5-mile tracks like Homestead, so I think when the pressure is on, he’ll beat the other 3 to the checkered flag.  There is, after all, no one better when the pressure is on than Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Here is a season preview for each of the top 12 picked in my Chase Grid:

1. Jimmie Johnson
As mentioned, Johnson is trying to tie Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, who each won 7 Cup titles, although Johnson would have accomplished the feat in a much shorter period of time.  It’s not wise to pick against him until a team consistently beats him.

2. Kevin Harvick
His first year at Stewart-Haas Racing could very well see him contend for a title.  He has finished 3rd in points 3 of the last 4 years, so the move to SHR (which pretty much uses Hendrick equipment), could put him over the hump.  Many also have him winning a 2nd Daytona 500 title.

3. Matt Kenseth
Kenseth, who will turn 42 in March, comes off a career year, with 7 wins and a runner-up finish to Johnson in points.  Recently there’s been a runner-up curse in the Sprint Cup Series, but I think Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliffe are too solid to fall into the trend.

4. Jeff Gordon
The 4-time champ and 88-time race winner says he may retire if he can win the title.  After being added to the Chase in 2013 due to the events at Richmond, Gordon finished 6th in points, his highest finish since 2009, and won at Martinsville, showing he’s still got some competitive fire at age 42.

5. Clint Bowyer
Speaking of the events at Richmond in September, Clint Bowyer and all of Michael Waltrip Racing are ready to put their mistakes behind them.  The best way to do that would be with a solid season, which they are more than capable of having.  Remember, Bowyer and crew chief Brian Pattie finished 2nd in points in 2012.

6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Yes, I had Junior winning 3 races.  One was at Michigan, where his last 2 wins have come, with two others on restrictor plate tracks, where he has always run well.  He does have 19 career wins, by the way.  There will be a greater sense of urgency, as crew chief Steve Letarte will leave for the NBC broadcast booth in 2015.

7. Brad Keselowski
The 2012 Sprint Cup champ will rebound after a tough 2013 to win a couple of races and be competitive in the Chase Grid.  The talented yet controversial Michigander has already amassed 10 career wins in just 161 starts.

8. Kasey Kahne
Kahne may be picked the lowest out of the 4 Hendrick Motorsports cars, but 8th really isn’t bad, particularly when that means the team would occupy half of the 8 spots in the Eliminator Round.  Kahne made the Chase in 2013 before struggling to a 12th place points finish, a year after a career-high 4th in 2012.

9. Kyle Busch
Whether you call him “Rowdy” or “Wild Thing”, it’s clear Kyle Busch is one of best known and most talented drivers on the circuit, and a “love him or hate him” type of figure.  While many have him contending for a title, the 3 race stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega during the Contender Round will have Busch out earlier than he would have hoped.

10. Denny Hamlin
Hamlin would rather forget 2013, a year in which he missed 4 races and lost a title shot with a broken back, before suffering through a series of tough breaks on his way to a 23rd place points finish, although he did win at Homestead.  Like Busch, the stretch of Kansas-Charlotte-Talladega will prevent Hamlin from a deep Chase run.

11. Tony Stewart
Like Hamlin, Stewart is coming off an injury, although his injury is a broken leg and caused him to miss 15 races, and has Stewart, in his own words, at about 65% strength to start the season.  Expect him to start slowly (he usually does anyway), before heating up in the summer to qualify his Chevy for the Chase.

12. Ryan Newman
Newman moves from Stewart-Haas Racing to Richard Childress Racing, where he will be the senior driver at the age of the 36.  Newman comes off his Brickyard 400 win in 2013, and has won 17 races and 51 poles in his 13 seasons.  He joins up-and-coming crew chief Luke Lambert for the 2014 campaign.

(Note:  As you might have figured out, I didn’t account for the fact that a non-Chase driver, or someone already eliminated, could win one of the Chase races.  I simply picked the driver with the highest likelihood of winning out of the drivers who were left for each event.)

Derek Jeter to Retire After 2014 Season

Yankees SS Derek Jeter announced today he will retire at the conclusion of the upcoming season.  Jeter will turn 40 in June and is entering his 19th MLB season, and 23rd overall professional season, all with the Yankees organization.  The Yankee captain is one of the most iconic figures in the game today, having won 5 World Series titles (1996, 1998-2000, 2009) and winning the 2000 World Series MVP award.  He will surely be most remembered for his play in the postseason play, as a lifetime .308 hitter in postseason play, including a .321 clip in 38 World Series games.  Jeter also has 20 homers and 61 RBI in his 158 career postseason games.  During Jeter’s career, the Yankees were 10-6 in the AL Division Series, 7-3 in the AL Championship Series, and 5-2 in the World Series.

As for the regular season, Jeter hit for a .312 career average, collecting 3,316 hits, good for 9th all-time.  Also, despite not being known for his power, he hit 256 career homers, which is over 13 per season.  He is the all-time Yankees leader in games played, at bats, hits, and stolen bases, and will only add to his records this year.  Any time you are the all-time Yankees leader in any category, much less 4 categories, you’ve had a pretty good career.

Jeter will surely be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, and will be eligible with the 2020 balloting.  As of right now, there are not any members of the late-1990s Yankee dynasty in the Hall of Fame except for Wade Boggs (Yankee from 1993-97, but in the Hall of Fame with a Red Sox cap on his plaque), although manager Joe Torre will be inducted this summer and closer Mariano Rivera, who retired last year and is also very likely a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte will also have a good shot at Hall of Fame election, and Roger Clemens is on the ballot but, so far, hasn’t gotten the required 75% of the vote.  I also fully expect Jeter’s #2 will be retired by the Yankees at the end of the year.

Jeter announced his retirement on Facebook, and you can read his statement on his Facebook page here:  https://www.facebook.com/derekjeter (this link will even work for those without a Facebook account)