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)

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 2/10

As usual, the top and bottom stay relatively steady in this week’s power rankings, although there is, as usual, some movement in the middle of the pack.  Syracuse remains 1 of the nation’s 2 undefeated teams, although that could change this week.  This will be a big week of rivalries in the conference with new ones like Syracuse-Pittsburgh (new to the ACC, at least), old ones like North Carolina-Duke and NC State-Wake Forest, and rivalries ending as Maryland makes their final trip to Durham and Charlottesville before leaving for the Big Ten.

1.  Syracuse (23-0 overall, 10-0 ACC, Last Week:  1st)
The Orange remain the unanimous #1 team in the nation in both polls, with a 61-55 win over Notre Dame and a 57-44 win over Clemson this past week, both at home.  Both games were close at times, but there’s something a lot of teams struggle with that the Orange are very good at:  closing the deal.  6 of their 10 conference wins have come by 10 points or less, and many of those games were close before the Orange pulled away late.  Most of their larger wins in ACC play have even followed that pattern.  Wednesday night the Orange rematch with Pittsburgh, who they beat 59-54 in the Carrier Dome on January 18, before hosting NC State on Saturday.

2.  Duke (19-5, 8-3, 2nd)
Duke extended their winning streak against teams not named Syracuse to 8 games with an 83-63 home win over Wake Forest and an 89-68 road win over Boston College.  With that, the Blue Devils are back in the top 10, moving to 8th in the AP Poll, after falling out in the January 6 poll after their loss to Notre Dame.  Many may have Virginia ahead of Duke in a ranking of ACC teams, since Duke has 3 losses and Virginia has just 1, but Duke has played extremely well since the loss to Clemson on January 11, even playing very well in their only loss of that stretch in overtime at Syracuse.  This week, the newest edition of the heated North Carolina-Duke rivalry will be played on Wednesday, before Duke and Maryland play Saturday, in their final scheduled meeting, at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

3.  Virginia (19-5, 10-1, 3rd)
Virginia remains comfortably in 2nd place in the ACC standings, a full 2 games ahead of 3rd place Duke, after a 77-67 win over Boston College and a 64-45 win over Georgia Tech.  With the pair of victories, the Cavaliers move from 20th to 17th in the AP Poll.  The Georgia Tech game was odd in the sense that the Yellow Jackets led 44-42 before Virginia closed on a 22-1 run to win in a lopsided-looking score.  This week, Virginia hosts Maryland for the final time (although they have one more meeting left in College Park), before traveling to Clemson.

4.  North Carolina (16-7, 6-4, 5th)
The Heels are playing well again, with a 75-63 win over Maryland and a 73-62 win over Notre Dame over the last week.  This has been an unusual team all year, with non-conference wins over Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky, and non-conference losses to Belmont and UAB.  They began conference play by losing 4 out of 5, but have since won 5 straight to jump into a tie for 5th place, and have the 3rd longest winning streak in the conference behind Syracuse and Virginia, the top 2 teams in the standings.  That streak will certainly be on the line when the Tar Heels renew their rivalry with Duke on Wednesday at the Smith Center, before hosting Pittsburgh on Saturday.  This is, without doubt, the biggest week of the Tar Heels’ season so far.

5.  Pittsburgh (20-4, 8-3, 4th)
The Panthers survived a couple of upset bids this week, first beating Miami 59-55 in overtime on the road, before returning home and beating Virginia Tech 62-57 in double overtime.  Pitt drops a spot here because they needed overtime to win against a pair of the bottom-tier teams in the ACC.  The thought they needed double overtime to beat a last place Virginia Tech team is certainly a head scratcher.  In addition to that, those two games were after a pair of losses, even if they were to Duke and Virginia.  Therefore, the last 4 games for Pitt have raised some question marks about how elite they really are, although they remain 25th in the AP Poll.  They can answer those questions this week when the host #1 Syracuse on Wednesday, in a rematch of a close game at the Carrier Dome earlier in the season, before traveling to Chapel Hill on Saturday to play North Carolina.

6.  Clemson (15-7, 6-4, 6th)
Clemson won a defensive struggle against Georgia Tech on Tuesday, 45-41, for their 500th win at Littlejohn Coliseum, before traveling to Syracuse to be defeated 57-44 by the top ranked Orange.  Clemson played fairly well at Syracuse, with the score not showing how even the teams were, but could never get close enough to truly threaten the Orange’s undefeated record.  Clemson remains 1st in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 55.1 points per game.  This week, Clemson will play at Notre Dame on short rest Tuesday night, before returning home for a big matchup with #17 Virginia on Saturday.

7.  Maryland (14-10, 6-5, 8th)
The hot-cold season of Maryland continued this week, with a 75-63 loss in their final trip to Chapel Hill and an 83-71 win at home over a Florida State team that had previously beaten them by 24.  Dating back to the start of conference play, here is Maryland’s season so far:  2 straight wins, 2 straight losses, a win, 2 straight losses, 2 straight wins, a loss, and a win.  This will be a tough week for the Terrapins if they want to pick up another win, as they will first travel to Virginia for the final Charlottesville meeting of this storied rivalry (they play one more time in College Park on March 9), before their final meeting with Duke, in another classic ACC rivalry, on Saturday in Durham.

8.  NC State (15-8, 5-5, 9th)
The Wolfpack won their only contest of the week on Saturday, beating Miami on the road, 56-55.  With that, NC State has very quietly won 4 out of 5, climbing back to the .500 mark in ACC play after a 1-4 start.  I mentioned last week that a couple of writers are starting to mention the Wolfpack as an NCAA bubble team, but one of the problems the Wolfpack have is that they don’t have a “résumé win” to their credit.  They can change that Saturday when they play #1 Syracuse on the road.  However, first they have to worry about a Tuesday night home game against Wake Forest, who won the prior meeting 70-69.

9.  Florida State (14-9, 5-6, 7th)
A couple of weeks ago, Florida State seemed like a mid-level ACC team, capable of playing well against top-tier opponents, and solidly in the field on projected NCAA tournament brackets.  Now, after losing 4 out of 5, they are on the NCAA bubble, and struggling to find any momentum as the season hits the stretch run.  This past week, they did beat Virginia Tech, 70-50, but lost 83-71 to a Maryland team they had beaten badly earlier in the season.  The Seminoles will need to right the ship, and this week play Miami tonight at home, having previously beaten them by 10 on the road, before traveling to Wake Forest on Saturday.

10.  Notre Dame (12-12, 3-8, 12th)
In this transition area between the mid-level and bottom-level ACC teams, strange things can happen in these rankings.  This is one example of that, as Notre Dame moves up 2 spots despite back-to-back losses.  Why?  Because the Irish showed some signs of life, which they have been lacking at times this season, in a 61-55 loss at Syracuse, playing a close game with the nation’s #1 team into the final minute of play.  While the Irish added a 73-62 loss to North Carolina over the weekend, their body of work was still better than the teams around them.  They can solidify that improvement in these rankings this week, hosting Clemson on Tuesday, before traveling to Boston College on Sunday in a rematch of an overtime game won by Notre Dame on February 1.

11.  Wake Forest (14-9, 4-6, 10th)
It’s tough to drop the Deacons a spot here, because their only game of the week was an 83-63 loss at Duke, in a building where no visitor has won all year.  The reason they fall a spot is because that loss was by 20, even if it was without their leading scorer, Codi Miller-McIntyre, who was out with an ankle injury, while Notre Dame played at Syracuse and lost by only 6.  In addition, Wake has lost 3 in a row, and 4 out of 6.  Tuesday, they travel to Raleigh for a rematch of their 70-69 win over the Wolfpack in Winston-Salem on January 15, in a game won by Miller-McIntyre in the closing seconds.  Miller-McIntyre is questionable to return against NC State, and the Deacs need him on the floor; whether or not he plays could play a major role in the outcome of the game.  On Saturday, Florida State visits the Joel Coliseum.

12.  Miami (11-12, 2-8, 11th)
Miami suffered a pair of tough home losses this week.  First, they lost to Pittsburgh, 59-55, in overtime, before losing to NC State, 56-55, in a game in which they must have felt they blew their opportunity.  Taking Pitt to overtime was impressive for this young team, but they couldn’t keep up with the 25th-ranked Panthers.  Miami has lost 5 out of 6, but they aren’t really playing that poorly, as most of the losses have been in close games.  This week, the Hurricanes play rival Florida State in Tallahassee, trying to avenge a 10-point loss on January 15, before traveling to Virginia Tech.  The Hurricanes are the only ACC team to lose to the Hokies, losing their first meeting in overtime on December 8.

13.  Georgia Tech (12-12, 3-8, 13th)
Like Miami, Georgia Tech isn’t necessarily playing all that poorly, but they’ve lost 2 in a row and 4 out of 5.  Against Clemson, the Yellow Jackets held the Tigers to 45 points, but lost 45-41 after being smothered by the nation’s leading defense.  Against Virginia, the Jackets led 44-42 with under 10 minutes to play, but were held without a field goal the rest of the way by the nation’s 2nd best defense, and lost 64-45.  Tech has been playing well without their leader, Trae Golden, who has been out since early in the Wake Forest game with a groin injury and remains questionable as the Yellow Jackets host Boston College on Wednesday.  Tech also got forward Robert Carter Jr. back from injury on Saturday.  While the Jackets will not contend for an NCAA tournament bid or a spot among the ACC’s elite, they are playing well enough to be a potential spoiler for those who are, once Golden comes back.  After hosting the Eagles, Tech will have a week to prepare for Duke on February 18.

14.  Virginia Tech (8-15, 1-10, 15th)
Despite their 10-game losing streak, the Hokies move up a spot in this week’s rankings.  That’s because, after losing 70-50 to Florida State, the Hokies took Pittsburgh to double overtime in the Petersen Events Center, before losing 62-57.  The game was impressive from Virginia Tech, whose last close game had come back on January 22, and whose last win was against Maryland-Eastern Shore on December 31.  Their 1 conference win was a 61-60 overtime defeat of Miami, on the road on December 8.  That being said, the Hokies could end the losing streak when Miami comes to Blacksburg on Saturday in the Hokies only game of the week.

15.  Boston College (6-17, 2-8, 14th)
Boston College drops back to 15th in these rankings, where they have spent a good portion of the season, after a 77-67 loss to Virginia, and a 89-68 loss to Duke.  While both of these losses are to ranked teams, they didn’t play tough competition as well as Virginia Tech did, so the Hokies pass them in these rankings.  By the way, the last team not named Virginia Tech that the Eagles beat was Division II school Philadelphia back on December 15.  The Eagles travel to Georgia Tech Tuesday before hosting Notre Dame on Sunday as they try to pick up a handful of wins down the stretch to avoid the worst overall record by an ACC team in the last 25 years (the dubious distinction is currently held by the 2010-11 Wake Forest team, who was 8-24, and just 1-15 in ACC play).

Games of the Week:

#1 Syracuse at #25 Pittsburgh (Wednesday, 7:00 PM ET)
In the first meeting of these two teams, Syracuse won 59-54 in a very close game.  Pittsburgh, in fact, led that game 52-49, on the road in the Carrier Dome.  Since then, many have looked to this game as perhaps the greatest chance for the undefeated Orange to lose, but Pitt has begun to struggle over the last couple of weeks.  After home losses to Duke and Virginia, Pitt needed overtime to beat Miami on the road and double overtime to beat Virginia Tech at home.  While I don’t expect Syracuse to blow the Panthers out, since they’re not really blowing out anyone, I do think the slide by Pitt has gone too far for them to beat the top ranked Orange.
Syracuse 58, Pittsburgh 50.

#8 Duke at North Carolina (Wednesday, 9:00 PM ET)
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 5 in a row, all 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 6 out of 7 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.

Maryland at #8 Duke (Saturday, 6:00 PM ET)
One of the saddest results of Maryland’s ACC departure at season’s end is the loss of the Maryland-Duke rivalry.  This meeting, Saturday in Durham, is the final scheduled meeting between the two programs.  While the rivalry has been around as long as the ACC, it was at its best in the early 2000s, with both Gary Williams and Mike Kryzewski both having perennial national title contenders, and winning titles in 2001 (Duke) and 2002 (Maryland).  Duke’s final-minute, 10-point comeback in College Park in 2001, known as the “Miracle Minute”, remains one of the great finishes in ACC history.  Even as Maryland’s program has failed to keep up with Duke’s success over the last 10 years, whenever these two teams play, records and rankings go out the window, like when the 6th-seeded Terrapins upset top-seeded Duke in overtime in the 2004 ACC Championship game.  As for the 2014 matchup, while Maryland may come out with a lot of emotion and energy given the significance of the game, I don’t see them being able to compete with Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke 75, Maryland 62.

Update: A-Rod Drops Lawsuit

After announcing back on January 11 plans to sue both Major League Baseball and its players union, today Alex Rodriguez dropped the lawsuit and accepted his season-long suspension.  While neither Rodriguez or his lawyer said why the lawsuit was dropped, there are several possible reasons for A-Rod’s change in attitude.

To read more about the lawsuit, which came after an arbitrator upheld the suspension of A-Rod, read my post “Just Give It Up, A-Rod” here: https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/just-give-it-up-a-rod/

One of the probable reasons for Rodriguez’s decision is up to $10 million that he would have had to pay in legal fees had the case gone to court.  He will already lose about $25 million of his Yankees salary because of the suspension.  Additionally, sources tell ESPN that Rodriguez may have reached out to MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred, hoping to regaining good relations with the sport.  The source also said Rodriguez wants to become another Ryan Braun, a player who was suspended for the final 65 games of 2013 before apologizing for his involvement with performance enhancing drugs, not another Pete Rose, a player banned for life for gambling on games.  Rodriguez, who will be 39 in July, will have 3 years remaining on his contract when he is reinstated in 2015, and those around Rodriguez believe he may be interested in broadcasting and/or partial team ownership after his playing career.  That may have been jeopardized had he continued his demonstrative actions toward MLB.

Rodriguez, during an interview last month, sounded resigned to the fate he would miss 2014, but said the year off could allow him to refocus both mentally and physically, and that, in the long run, it may actually help his career.

Football Year in Review for 2013-14

Football season is over.  And while I won’t be having withdrawals due to the presence of college basketball’s stretch run and golf’s early season events, as well as the NASCAR and baseball seasons looming on the horizon, there will still be a small void, as the season of the most watched and most talked about sport in American culture has ended.

That being said, it was a great season, both in college football and the NFL.  While the season ended with an abysmal Super Bowl, with the Seahawks beating the Broncos 43-8, there were some fantastic games and moments throughout the season leading up to the end.

The excellence reached its peak in the NFC Championship, my choice for the NFL’s best game of the year, with the Seahawks beating the 49ers, 23-17, after scoring a touchdown late before intercepting Colin Kaepernick’s potential game-winner in the end zone with :22 left.  The year’s best player was, without a shadow of a doubt, Broncos QB Peyton Manning.  While many criticized his Super Bowl performance, Manning and the Denver offense weren’t solely responsible for allowing 43 points to the mediocre Seattle offense.  While a handful of turnovers, as well as a safety on the game’s first play, helped Seattle, Peyton’s tough night came after a record-setting season which may have been the greatest single season by a QB in NFL history (if it’s not, it’s among the top 2 or 3).  And he did all that at the age of 37.  While Panthers coach Ron Rivera was awarded the AP’s Coach of the Year award, considering this post is taking the entire season and postseason into account, I have to say my coach of the year is the Seahawks’ Pete Carroll.  Carroll came to Seattle after an ultra-successful run at USC, and inherited a team that had previously appeared in the playoffs 5 out of 7 years, but was beginning to fall off the map.  In 4 years, Carroll has won 2 NFC West titles, made 3 playoff appearances, won at least 1 game in each playoff appearance, and now has won the NFC and Super Bowl titles this year.

As for the Super Bowl itself, if I had had an official MVP vote on Sunday night, I would have broken the rules and given the MVP to the entire Seahawks defense.  While Malcolm Smith, who won the MVP after an interception, which he returned for a touchdown, as well as a fumble recovery, certainly contributed to the Seattle blowout win, it was simply an unbelievable performance by the entire unit who held the best statistical offense in NFL history to 8 points, and those 8 were scored once the game was out of hand.

As is, Smith is the first defensive player in 11 years to win Super Bowl MVP.  Although James Harrison of the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII and Tracy Porter of the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV both made major contributions to their team’s victories (both had interceptions returned for touchdowns), it had been since Super Bowl XXXVII when Dexter Jackson of the Buccaneers, who had 2 interceptions against the Raiders, that a defensive player won MVP.  The last linebacker to win MVP was Ray Lewis 2 years earlier, in the first of a pair of Ravens Super Bowl victories with Lewis.

As part of this year in review, I will look back at my weekly picks, made in both college and NFL games throughout the year.  The picks did not begin until the 3rd week of the college season, and Week 2 in the NFL, as that is when I began this blog.

First here is a week by week look at the college season:

Weeks 3-15 of the Regular Season:  3-2, 3-1, 2-2, 2-3, 3-2, 2-3, 2-3, 3-3, 1-4, 4-2, 1-4, 5-1, 3-4

Regular Season Total:  34-34

Bowl Week 1-2:  3-3, 6-3

BCS Bowls:  2-3

Bowls Total:  11-9

College Overall Total:  45-43 (.511 win percentage)

Now here is a breakdown of my college picks by category:

Game of the Week:  10-6

Big Game Guarantee:  16-17

Upset of the Week:  12-11

Closer Than The Experts Think:  7-9

While I naturally aim for perfection with these picks, I acknowledge that some of these categories, particularly the “Upset of the Week” and “Closer Than The Experts Think” categories, are difficult to pick.  With upsets, my realistic goal at the beginning of the season was a .500 record, and it turns out I ended up 1 game over .500.  As for the “Closer…” picks, a win or loss in my records were measured by both the outcome of the game and the spread.  I was, after all, saying that the underdog would lose the game but beat the spread, so wins and losses were measured as such.  So, I was aiming for a .500 record there too, but fell just short.  Highlight upset picks include both of my BCS upsets being correct (there were others I didn’t pick, but the ones that I did pick were right), correctly picking Michigan State’s upset of then #2 Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, correctly picking Duke’s upset of Miami (which eventually led to their division title), and predicting the Ole Miss upset of then #6 LSU.  There were, of course, some other upset picks I would like to have back, but that’s easy to say in this capacity here at the end of the season.  One highlight “Closer…” pick was in the Auburn-LSU game in Week 4, in which I said Auburn was an “up-and-coming” team, but that LSU would be too much.  That proved to be very true, as Auburn beat the spread but lost by 14 before going on their run of destiny all the way to Pasadena.  Other highlights included correctly picking the Texas A&M-Ole Miss game to be very close, and picking Duke to play Texas A&M very closely.  In that Texas A&M-Ole Miss game, the “Closer…” pick was a gamble, as the spread was just 6 points, but when Texas A&M won by 3, it counted as a personal win.

As for the “Game of the Week” and “Big Game Guarantee”, obviously the criteria was simply correctly predicting the outcome of the game.  I began the season winning 5 straight “Game of the Week” picks, before averaging a .500 mark the rest of the way.  The “Guarantee” was designed to be the pick of a game that most people thought was a toss-up, but I thought was a practical guarantee for one team to win, hence the name.  As the season went on, it became clear that my “guarantee” pick was anything but, as the teams picked in the category were under .500 on the season.

For a more thorough college football season in review, read my “College Football Postseason Power Rankings” post at https://stilesonsports.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/college-football-postseason-power-rankings/.

Here are the year’s NFL picks:

Regular Season by Week (I did not do picks every single week):  1-0, 0-1, 0-1, 0-1, 3-0, 2-0, 1-0, 3-2, 3-2

Regular Season Total:  13-7

Playoffs by Week (Wild Card, Divisional, Championship, Super Bowl):  1-3, 2-2, 2-0, 0-1

Playoffs Total:  5-6

NFL Overall Total:  18-13 (.581 win percentage)

While I know much more about the college game than the pro game, this year’s game picks show otherwise, as I did better picking NFL games, particularly during the regular season.  The highlight of my NFL picks was picking not only the outcome, but the 24-20 score correctly in the Panthers-Patriots game.  A couple of lowlights were picking the Bears to beat the Eagles before watching them lose 54-11, and going 1-3 in the NFL Wild Card Round (and the 1 win was only because of the Colts coming back from a 38-10 deficit to win 45-44 over the Chiefs).

So as we wrap up football until we see college games again in late August and pro games in early September, looking back on the season the focus should be on the champions.  The Seattle Seahawks are Super Bowl champions for the first time ever, and the city of Seattle has their first major professional sports title since 1979 (they have won a pair of WNBA titles, but this is the first major title).  Florida State won the final BCS title (before the start of the new College Football Playoff in 2014), for their first title since 1999.

And now, let the games continue, with (as mentioned) college basketball, golf, NASCAR, and baseball either in season or coming soon, and the Olympics beginning tomorrow.