Twitter Picks for College Football Week 13

Game of the Week

#3 Oklahoma (10-1) at #11 Oklahoma State (10-1)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite:  Oklahoma by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Oklahoma- 3rd, Oklahoma State- 10th

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#7 Baylor (9-1) at #19 TCU (9-2)
Friday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite:  Baylor by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Baylor- 7th, TCU- 19th

 

#22 UCLA (8-3) at USC (7-4)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC/ESPN2
Favorite: USC by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: UCLA- 20th, USC- unranked

 

#18 Ole Miss (8-3) at #21 Mississippi State (8-3)
Saturday, 7:15 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite: Ole Miss by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ole Miss- 19th, Mississippi State- 22nd

 

#13 Florida State (9-2) at #12 Florida (10-1)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Florida State by 3
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Florida State- 14th, Florida- 9th

 

#6 Notre Dame (10-1) at #9 Stanford (9-2)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Stanford by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Notre Dame- 4th, Stanford- 12th

 

(Extremely Mild) Upset of the Week

#8 Ohio State (10-1) at #10 Michigan (9-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Ohio State by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking: Ohio State- 8th, Michigan- 11th

 

NFL Game of the Week

New England Patriots (10-0) at Denver Broncos (8-2)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Patriots by 3

 

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 55-42
Last Week: 6-6
College Overall Record: 46-36
Game of the Week: 7-5
Big Game Guarantee: 26-14
Upset of the Week: 6-12
Closer Than the Experts Think: 7-6
NFL Game of the Week: 8-6

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College Football Power Rankings for Week 12

Going into the Thanksgiving holiday, there’s a lot of programs who have a lot to be thankful for.  Clemson and Iowa, for instance, enter the weekend undefeated, as they take on rivals in traditional Thanksgiving weekend matchups.  An additional 12 teams have just one loss, with nine of those as well as a pair of two loss teams having, at the very least, an outside chance at the College Football Playoff.  After losses by two of last week’s top five, and big wins by Oklahoma, Michigan State, Baylor, and others, the rankings have been shaken up a bit, heading into the final weekend of the regular season for a majority of the teams in CFP contention.

1. Clemson (11-0, Last Week: 1st, CFP Rankings: 1st)
The outcome was never in doubt as the Tigers defeated Wake Forest (3-8), 33-13, although Deshaun Watson may have hurt his Heisman chances with two interceptions.  After eating turkey on Thursday, the Tigers are hoping to swallow up some chickens in their rivalry game on Saturday at the South Carolina Gamecocks (3-8), ahead of an already-sold out ACC Championship Game matchup against North Carolina (10-1) on December 5.

2. Alabama (10-1, LW: 2nd, CFP: 2nd)
The Crimson Tide took care of business against FCS playoff-bound foe Charleston Southern (9-2), 56-6.  Heisman contender Derrick Henry scored twice, although he only got 68 yards as Nick Saban allowed several other backs to get some carries in the one-sided affair.  The Iron Bowl against Auburn (6-5) is next, and while the Tide are big favorites, the game is at Auburn and rivalry games like this one can be hard to predict.

3. Oklahoma (10-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 3rd)
Honestly, the Sooners’ win over TCU (9-2) wasn’t the prettiest victory of the season.  Quarterback Baker Mayfield, who entered the game as a Heisman contender, left with a head injury after a lackluster first half, and replacement Trevor Knight played even worse.  TCU was without both quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson.  Oklahoma led, however, 30-13 in the fourth before holding on for a 30-29 win when a TCU two-point conversion attempt failed in the final minute.  It’s a win over a very quality opponent, and it puts the Sooners in third in the committee’s rankings, heading into the “Bedlam” rivalry against Oklahoma State (10-1) most likely one win away from the Playoff.

4. Notre Dame (10-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 6th)
Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer threw three interceptions and the Irish were outrushed 214-127, but Notre Dame survived their bout with Boston College (3-8), 19-16, in an incredible atmosphere at Fenway Park.  While CFP committee chair Jeff Long said Notre Dame’s close game with the Eagles certainly wasn’t a resume builder, the main reason the Irish dropped to sixth in the rankings was the big wins by the teams who passed them.  Nonetheless, it puts the Irish in a situation where they will now likely need some help to reach the four-team Playoff field, as they play their regular season finale Saturday at Stanford (9-2).

5. Michigan State (10-1, LW: 10th, CFP: 5th)
Speaking of ugly wins, you could say the Spartans got one, although it was a beautiful mess for the fans in East Lansing.  Sparty defeated Ohio State (10-1), 17-14, despite throwing for only 91 yards and not having a player rush for more than 65.  As a unit, however, the team rushed for 203 yards, and defensively the Spartans held Ohio State to 132 total yards, as Michigan State won the game on a last-second field goal by Michael Geiger, improving to 6-1 in their last seven games against top 10 opponents.  There is currently a three-way tie in the Big Ten East between the Spartans, Ohio State, and Michigan, although the Buckeyes and Wolverines play each other Saturday.  With wins over both, the Spartans simply need to beat Penn State (7-4) at home to clinch the division.

6. Iowa (11-0, LW: 7th, CFP: 4th)
Should Michigan State clinch the Big Ten East, they would meet Iowa in the league’s title game on December 5.  The Hawkeyes defeated Purdue (2-9), 40-20.  While the game wasn’t statistically overwhelming, although Jordan Canzeri ran for 95 yards and a touchdown, the team has made it through 11 games undefeated by playing well enough as a group to score more than the opponent.  The Hawkeyes are now fourth in the CFP rankings, although I have them lower due to more close wins against lighter teams than other Playoff contenders.  This week, the Hawkeyes play Nebraska (5-6) in a border rivalry, before heading to Indianapolis next week for the Big Ten title game.

7. Baylor (9-1, LW: 9th, CFP: 7th)
The Bears entered their game with Oklahoma State (10-1) on their second quarterback, as Jarrett Stidham had previously replaced Seth Russell, and during the game lost Stidham as well.  They turned to Chris Johnson, who was third string just a few weeks ago, and he delivered down the stretch to secure Baylor’s 45-35 win over the Cowboys, as the Bears outgained the Cowboys 700-441.  Yes, that’s 700 yards of offense:  396 passing yards and 304 rushing yards.  Friday’s game against TCU (9-2) is still extremely important, as the Bears still have a legitimate Playoff shot, but it won’t be the matchup of two undefeated teams that many, including me, expected throughout much of the season.

8. Ohio State (10-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 8th)
The Buckeyes streaks of 23 straight wins and 30 straight conference wins were snapped on Saturday, in a 17-14 loss to Michigan State (10-1).  The Buckeyes gained only 132 yards, with 86 on the ground and only 46 through the air.  Heisman contender Ezekiel Elliott rushing just 12 times for 33 yards, although he did score one of the Buckeyes two touchdowns, and criticized the Buckeyes’ play calling after the game (although he has since apologized).  A Big Ten title, and a CFP bid, are still possibilities, and while the Buckeyes need help to earn either, first they must beat Michigan (9-2), which will be no small task, in one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports.

9. Florida (10-1, LW: 8th, CFP: 12th)
After entering the game on a string of recent games in which they survived, but didn’t dominate, Florida Atlantic (2-9) stretched the Gators even further, as it took overtime to dispatch the Owls, 20-14.  Half the Gators 10 wins this season have come by seven points or less, and their loss to LSU looks worse now than it did at the time.  While the Playoff committee dropped the Gators down to 12th, I won’t go that far, but I have slipped them a spot to ninth.  However, the Gators can help a relatively weak resume the next two weeks, first hosting rival Florida State (9-2), before playing Alabama (10-1) in the SEC Championship Game on December 5.

10. Oklahoma State (10-1, LW: 5th, CFP: 11th)
The Cowboys offense, while it doesn’t necessarily have the high-scoring ability of other Big 12 teams (Baylor, for instance), is still pretty good.  We learned Saturday, however, that the defense may need some work, as they allowed 700 yards of offense to Baylor (9-1) in a 45-35 loss, their first of the season.  Oklahoma State can still win the Big 12 with a win Saturday over Oklahoma (10-1) in Bedlam, one of the best-named rivalries in sports, and a Baylor loss to TCU, but for the Pokes to do their half of that scenario and win Saturday in Stillwater against the Sooners, they will have to improve defensively, as they face another good offensive club.

11. Michigan (9-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 10th)
12. Stanford (9-2, LW: 14th, CFP: 9th)
13. North Carolina (10-1, LW: 16th, CFP: 14th)
14. Florida State (9-2, LW: 17th, CFP: 13th)
15. Northwestern (9-2, LW: 19th, CFP: 16th)
16. TCU (9-2, LW: 13th, CFP: 19th)
17. Navy (9-1, LW: 18th, CFP: 15th)
18. Oregon (8-3, LW: 20th, CFP: 17th)
19. Ole Miss (8-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 18th)
20. UCLA (8-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 22nd)
21. Houston (10-1, LW: 11th, CFP: unranked)
22. Mississippi State (8-3, LW: 24th, CFP: 21st)
23. Washington State (8-3, LW: 23rd, CFP: 20th)
24. Temple (9-2, LW: unranked, CFP: 25th)
25. Toledo (10-1, LW: unranked, CFP: 24th)

Also ranked in CFP Rankings: Utah (8-3, LW: 22nd, CFP: 23rd)

Fell from Rankings: LSU (7-3, LW: 15th), Wisconsin (8-3, LW: 21st), Utah, USC (7-4, LW: 25th)

NASCAR Championship Round Preview

After a choatic Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR’s version of the playoffs has reached its finale, the Championship Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.  Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr. are the four drivers competing for the title, and whoever finishes highest among them on Sunday will win the title.  All four have had exciting seasons, and they bring four excellent storylines to the event.

The biggest storyline is Jeff Gordon.  He is retiring after Sunday’s race, and will attempt to win the Cup championship for the fifth time in his storied career.  Gordon has won 93 races in his 23 year career, which started in the finale of the 1992 season, on a day with storylines similar to this year’s finale, with a frantic championship battle occurring alongside Richard Petty’s final start.  This time, however, the legend who is retiring is also one of the title contenders, and could become the first driver since Ned Jarrett to walk away from the sport as reigning champion (and the first to win a title in his final start).

While Gordon does have four titles, he has never won a championship since NASCAR established the Chase format in 2004, something he has said he would like to accomplish.  Gordon qualified for the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville, and Hendrick Motorsports has won each of the last three races.

The other three storylines are mildly overshadowed by Gordon, but are all still very compelling nonetheless.  Kevin Harvick won last year’s Sprint Cup title in the first year of the Chase Grid format (the Chase was previously the accumulation of points from the final 10 races), after finishing third in points on three previous occasions.  If Harvick could win the championship, he would be the first back-to-back titlist since  Jimmie Johnson’s five straight titles from 2006-10, and the first excluding Johnson’s historic run since Gordon in 1997-98.  Harvick won the title last year in his first year at Stewart-Haas, so if he wins another on Sunday, through two seasons Harvick will have not lost a title with the team.  He came to Stewart-Haas after 13 seasons at Richard Childress Racing, where his highest points finish was third, on three occasions.

Martin Truex Jr. has never finished higher than 10th in the final points standings, and yet he can win the championship on Sunday.  Truex is driving for Furniture Row Racing, a small, one-car team based in Denver, CO, far away from the metro Charlotte area where a majority of the teams are based.  While the team does have a technical alliance with Richard Childress Racing, they are still officially a one-car team, and would be the first such team to win a championship since, ironically, Childress in 1994 with Dale Earnhardt.  With three career wins, Truex would have the least career wins by any Cup champion in the modern era if he wins the title without winning the race, or would tie the mark if he wins the race (Terry Labonte had four in 1984).  Truex and the little team that could are certainly underdogs, although throughout his career Truex has performed well at Homestead (see below).  Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex are an inspirational story, as Pollex has been fighting a courageous public battle with ovarian cancer, giving Truex a unique perspective that, while this race is certainly important, it is, after all, just a race.

Kyle Busch entered 2015 as one of the title favorites, but his season came to an abrupt halt at Daytona.  In the XFinity Series event the day before the Daytona 500, Busch broke his right leg and his left foot in a vicious accident, and missed the first 11 races of the Sprint Cup Series season.  He received a waiver from NASCAR to allow him to be eligible for the Chase, and won four out of five races during a superb summer stretch.  Some have questioned why the one-time prodigy should be eligible for the championship after missing nearly a third of the season, but NASCAR’s current rules are written to allow such a scenario, which makes sense in such a dangerous sport.  Busch has never finished higher than fourth in points, and this is easily his best shot so far in his career to win the Sprint Cup title.

So, who is the favorite in this heavyweight fight?  To figure that out, let’s look at how these drivers have fared throughout their careers at Homestead, as well as on the intermediate-length tracks this season.

Looking back through each Homestead race since 2006 (Truex’s first full season in the Sprint Cup Series), if each Homestead race were hypothetically for the championship amongst these four, Harvick would have won the title four times, Truex three times, and Gordon twice, while Busch would not have won the title once.  Over that span, Harvick and Gordon have each won once, but the hypothetical title would have been won with a top four finish each year.  I will provide the disclaimer that the race may have been run differently if these four had been competing for the title, so this isn’t exactly the most scientific formula to pick the winner.

Since 2006, Harvick has an excellent average finish of 6.6 at Homestead, with a career average finish of 7.6 at the track, and has six top fives and 12 top 10s his 14 starts there, winning last year’s race to clinch the title.

Gordon’s numbers at the track are similar, although the average is a little lower at 10.6, and is 11.3 since 2006, with a win (in 2012), seven top fives, and 12 top 10s in 16 starts (NASCAR started racing at Homestead in 1999; otherwise Gordon might have 23 starts).

Homestead is one of Truex’s best tracks on the circuit, with an average of 7.6 since his first full-time season (and 10.0 when including his start there during a part-time 2004 season), and although he has never won at the speedway, he has a second, a third, and a fourth, and seven top 10s in 10 starts.  His only finish outside the top 11 was a 17th last season, during a horrible season in which his Furniture Row team led one lap all year, a stat which makes his run to Homestead that much more remarkable.

For Busch, Homestead is not one of his better tracks, as he has struggled to an average finish of 23.1 in 10 starts, with nearly as many DNF’s (2) as top 10 finished (3), and only three lead lap finishes in 10 starts.  The three top 10s for Busch at Homestead are fourth, seventh, and eighth, meaning he will likely need to have the best Homestead race of his career on Sunday to have a shot at the title.  However, all three of Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have all had success at the track, and with Busch being the only Gibbs driver in the championship fight, he can use the organization’s full resources (although each of the four can say the same thing).

At intermediate tracks this season, Harvick was the highest finisher in seven of the 11 races, with Busch the highest in three, Truex in one, and Gordon in none.  While that sounds one-sided favoring Harvick, remember that Busch missed nearly a third of the season with injury, during which time Harvick was the highest finisher at all four intermediate races.  After Busch came back at Charlotte, however, the two drivers were even with three such races as the highest finisher.

In these 11 races, Harvick and Busch each won one, although Harvick finished in second on four occasions, and third once.  Besides his win, Busch’s highest finish is fourth.  Truex has a second and a third, and eight total top 10s.  Gordon’s highest intermediate finish is a fourth, and his next highest is a seventh, with only five top 10s, showing this type of track isn’t Gordon’s strongest.  On the other hand, however, Gordon has improved throughout the year, both on intermediate tracks and overall, so these numbers don’t necessarily tell the whole story.

Other than Gordon’s 13.5 average finish at intermediate tracks this year, the other three contenders have nearly identical averages, with Busch at 8.1, Harvick at 8.4, and Truex at 8.7.

It would not be surprising for any of these four to win the championship on Sunday, as all have earned the right to compete for the title in the finale.  As for making a pick, it’s nearly impossible to narrow even the small field of these four down to one favorite.

While Busch may be at a slight disadvantage with his less than stellar Homestead record, he has shown through his career he can be a threat anywhere, and that he can be successful at an intermediate track.

Truex is the definite underdog, but he’s a threat for a strong finish any time he cranks his engine at Homestead.

Harvick is, to many the clear favorite, and has earned that distinction with his strong season, particularly at similar circuits, as well as his Homestead record, and his experience in winning the title in this format a year ago.

The numbers don’t favor Gordon as much as the others, but he is the sentimental favorite, as he is trying to finish off the Hollywood ending to one of the greatest careers the sport has ever seen, and ride into the sunset as a five-time champion.  He also has the most recent race win of the four, three weeks ago at Martinsville, and posted the fastest 10-lap average in Saturday’s final practice.

While Sunday’s race will be unpredictable, one thing is for sure:  this crazy NASCAR season is going to have an incredible finish.

Twitter Picks for College Football Week 12

I found the following paragraph from a post from 2013 picking college football games, and it applies this week too, after last week I hit some picks while others didn’t make me look exceptionally bright.

“We learned last week that this weekly post of mine, or others like it, are just simple predictions that can be wrong in a heartbeat.  But, in the spirit of the game, and in preparation for another big week of college football, those like me who think they can predict the future continue.  That being said, here are my picks for Week 9.”

So, that being said, here are this week’s Twitter picks.

Game of the Week

#9 Michigan State (9-1) at #3 Ohio State (10-0)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Ohio State by 14
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Michigan State- 10th, Ohio State- 3rd

 

Big Game Guarantee(s)

#10 Baylor (8-1) at #6 Oklahoma State (10-0)
Saturday, 7:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: even
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Baylor- 9th, Oklahoma State- 5th

 

#18 TCU (9-1) at #7 Oklahoma (9-1)
Saturday, 8:00 pm ET, ABC
Favorite: Oklahoma by 11
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  TCU- 13th, Oklahoma- 6th

 

#20 Northwestern (8-2) at #25 Wisconsin (8-2)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, BTN
Favorite: Wisconsin by 10
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Northwestern- 19th, Wisconsin- 21st

 

#24 USC (7-3) at #23 Oregon (7-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Oregon by 4
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  USC- 25th, Oregon- 20th

 

California (6-4) at #11 Stanford (8-2)
Saturday, 10:30 pm ET, ESPN
Favorite: Stanford by 11
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  California- unranked, Stanford- 14th

 

#21 Memphis (8-2) at Temple (8-2)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPNU
Favorite: Memphis by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  both teams are unranked

 

Upset(s) of the Week

#15 LSU (7-2) at #24 Ole Miss (7-3)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, CBS
Favorite: Ole Miss by 7
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  LSU- 15th, Ole Miss- unranked

 

UCLA (7-3) at #13 Utah (8-2)
Saturday, 3:30 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Utah by 1
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  UCLA- unranked, Utah- 22nd

 

Closer Than the Experts Think

Purdue (2-8) at #5 Iowa (10-0)
Saturday, 12:00 pm ET, ESPN2
Favorite: Iowa by 22
Stiles on Sports Ranking:  Purdue- unranked, Iowa- 7th

 

NFL Game(s) of the Week

Green Bay Packers (6-3) at Minnesota Vikings (7-2)
Sunday, 4:25 pm ET, FOX
Favorite: Vikings by 1

 

Cincinnati Bengals (8-1) at Arizona Cardinals (7-2)
Sunday, 8:30 pm ET, NBC
Favorite: Cardinals by 5

 

 

Season to Date
Overall Record: 49-36
Last Week: 7-5
College Overall Record: 41-31
Game of the Week: 7-4
Big Game Guarantee: 23-11
Upset of the Week: 5-11
Closer Than the Experts Think: 6-6
NFL Game of the Week: 7-5

 

The Day Modern NASCAR Was Born

November 15, 1992 was a historic day on multiple levels for NASCAR, as a race in Atlanta marked the end of the closest points battle at the time in the sport’s history, the end of the career of Richard Petty, and the career debut of Jeff Gordon.

As fondly as the day is remembered by NASCAR fans, the statement that it was one of the greatest races the sport has ever seen doesn’t do justice to the day and its impact.

No, the date of November 15, 1992, should be remembered as a birthday, because the NASCAR in its modern form was born that afternoon in Georgia.

An Assortment of Storylines

The race was the perfect storm of events, as while Richard Petty, “The King”, was making his final Cup Series start, that arguably wasn’t the biggest storyline.

Six drivers entered the race with a mathematical shot to win the Cup title, with the threesome of Davey Allison, Alan Kulwicki, and Bill Elliott all having realistic chances at the title.  Of course, the storyline surrounding Gordon’s first start wasn’t a big deal until later, as Gordon went on to become one of the best drivers in NASCAR history.

Petty, who won a record 200 races in his illustrious 35-year career, along with a record seven Cup championships (Dale Earnhardt would tie this record in 1994), was 55 years old in 1992, and had not won a race since 1984.  His best finish in his final season had been a modest 15th, and he would finish 26th in the series point standings, but that didn’t stop the fans from adoring him at each track along his “Fan Appreciation Tour,” as they wanted a glimpse of The King’s final season.

In addition to the three main title contenders, Petty’s son Kyle, along with Harry Gant and Mark Martin, had mathematical chances at the title, marking the only time in NASCAR history that six drivers had a chance to win the championship in the season’s final race.  However, unless Allison, Kulwicki, and Elliott all had problems or did poorly in the race, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin had no realistic shot.

The three main contenders for the title got to where they were in 1992 in three different ways.

Davey Allison was the son of NASCAR Hall of Famer and 84-time race winner Bobby Allison.  Davey had a rapid rise to NASCAR stardom, winning Rookie of the Year in 1987 after becoming the first rookie to win multiple races, and finishing second to his father at the Daytona 500 the following year.

While the road was made easier by Allison having a father among the sport’s greats, he had still gotten to the point of title contention in 1992 through hard work, and had had a rough season.

The humble Alabaman had several vicious crashes causing injuries which he continued to drive through in subsequent races, and also suffered the death of his brother, Clifford, in a racing accident at Michigan International Speedway.  Despite all this, Allison led the points entering Atlanta, on the strength of five wins.

Elliott had come up through the ranks of racing as part of a family operation based in small-town Dawsonville, Georgia, and had won the Winston Million bonus in 1985, winning three of the sport’s four biggest races to do so, before winning the Cup Series title in 1988.

He was with a new team in 1992, with owner Junior Johnson, which was at the time one of the top rides in the sport.  Elliott entered the finale in Atlanta with four wins on the season.

Kulwicki was the underdog (so much so that during the Atlanta race, his Ford Thunderbird had a sticker over the “Th” so it simply read “Underbird”).  He had moved south in 1985 to pursue a full-time NASCAR career, beginning with very little money and resources.

By the start of 1992, as a driver-owner with his own team, Kulwicki had won three races, and had grabbed the attention of big-name team owners, including Junior Johnson, but was determined to do it his own way, and continued racing for his own team.

The Wisconsinite won two races in ’92, which was less than both Allison and Elliott, but was consistent enough to be in the thick of the points battle heading into the final battle, and had overcome nearly all of a 278-point deficit with six races remaining (in the old points format, with each position worth 3-5 points) with some excellent runs in the weeks prior to Atlanta.

Allison entered the race leading the standings by 30 points, and could clinch the Cup title with a finish of sixth or better.  Kulwicki was second, 10 points ahead of third place Elliott.

An Action-Filled Afternoon

A crowd of 160,000, the largest attendance for any sporting event in Georgia, converged at Atlanta Motor Speedway for this historic afternoon, and they saw action early.

Pole-sitter Rick Mast was involved in a crash on the opening lap, forcing the whole field to scramble to avoid him.  All of the title contenders got through except for Allison, who was rear-ended as he checked up to avoid the crash, and had some minor fender damage.

But it wasn’t too big of a setback, as by the 90-lap mark of the 328-lap event, Allison had gained the race lead.

Petty, who hadn’t been a threat to win for all of the 1992 season, simply wanted to run the entire race.  But on lap 95, The King was caught up in an accident that started in front of him, as he rear-ended Rich Bickle, causing heavy front-end damage and breaking the oil cooler, causing the car to catch on fire.

Petty’s car would not appear back on the track until the very end of the race, when he drove the car, without a front end, for the final two laps, but The King was able to avoid a dreaded DNF in his final start.

As the race went on, Kyle Petty, Gant, and Martin all fell out of contention, leaving the top three to battle it out for the championship.

With the race’s many storylines, Gordon’s debut was, as most debuts are, an afterthought — although on another day it may have gotten a small amount of attention, considering Gordon had finished fourth in the 1992 NASCAR Busch Series (now XFinity Series) standings.

However, after Gordon’s novice pit crew left a roll of duct tape on the hood, and it fell out on the track, Gordon became part of the championship storyline, as Allison ran over the tape, causing a moderate amount of damage.

Allison’s car didn’t handle as well from that point forward.  He fell backward after running over the debris but, as the race entered the closing stages, had worked his way back up into the sixth position, the very spot where he could clinch the title no matter what Kulwicki or Elliott did.

Then, disaster struck.

With 74 to go, Ernie Irvan blew a tire exiting turn four and spun right into Allison’s path, leaving him with no way to avoid hitting Irvan.

Allison tried to drive the car away, but the crash had ruined both his steering and his championship hopes.  He would finish 43 laps down in 27th, and after his misfortune, the championship battle was down to Kulwicki and Elliott.

Allison, who was known for his contagiously positive attitude, responded afterward to a reporter’s statement that the outcome was “almost cruel” by saying, “Nah, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Allison was known for saying, “Whatever life throws at me, there’s nothing me and the Lord can’t handle together.”  Life had thrown plenty at Allison, both on this November day and throughout all of 1992, and yet Allison showed tremendous grace in defeat, finishing third in the final standings.

Chasing the Battle — And the War

Kulwicki had taken the lead with 118 laps to go over Elliott, who was running second.  As the final pit stop of the race approached, Kulwicki’s crew determined that if he stayed in the lead until lap 309 he would clinch, at minimum, a tie with Elliott for leading the most laps — and five bonus points.

In waiting until lap 309, however, Kulwicki nearly ran out of fuel.  When he did pit with 19 to go, Elliott, who still had to pit, inherited the lead.  Kulwicki couldn’t get off of pit road quickly due to a transmission issue, so when Elliott pitted at lap 314, he stayed in front of Kulwicki.

Terry Labonte stayed on the track to lead the following lap, before Elliott retook the lead with 12 to go.  That lap led by Labonte ensured that Kulwicki would lead the most laps outright, meaning he would, in fact, get the five bonus points (and Elliott would not; had they tied for the most laps led, both would have received five points).

Kulwicki’s crew wasn’t sure if they got enough fuel in the car, meaning that for the final laps, Kulwicki had to save fuel, and couldn’t try to run down Elliott for the win.

However, Kulwicki’s crew knew that if their driver could just stay in second behind Elliott, he would still gain enough points to win the title, because he was assured of the laps led bonus.

Elliott took the checkered flag as the race winner, for his fifth win of the year.  Ironically enough, the next driver to cross the finish line behind Elliott was Richard Petty, 233 laps down in 35th.

Eight seconds behind Elliott, Kulwicki crossed the line to finish the race in second, and clinched his first Cup series championship.

Three Celebrations

Elliott went to victory lane, where he called the win a hollow victory, as he won the battle but lost the war to Kulwicki.

Kulwicki celebrated the title by doing a backwards victory lap, which he called the “Polish victory lap”.

He had celebrated with the Polish victory lap after his first Cup win at Phoenix in 1988, but NASCAR wasn’t particularly fond of this celebration so Kulwicki agreed not to perform it again until he won a championship.

So that afternoon in Atlanta, Kulwicki, who was the first owner-driver to win a title since Petty in 1979, got to celebrate just like he ran his team — his way.

After Elliott and Kulwicki were interviewed on ESPN’s race broadcast, the stage was set for Petty’s farewell.  He drove his battered car around the 1.522-mile track one last time, at a much slower pace to allow everyone a final glimpse of The King as he waved out the window to the throngs of his adoring fans.

Gordon’s debut wasn’t a memorable one.  After the pit road gaffe which subsequently affected Allison, Gordon, while battling a loose racecar, spun out and hit the wall on lap 164.  He was unable to continue, and finished 31st, a finish that was not at all indicative of the incredible career that had just begun.

A Chase is Born

The impact of this race on the history of NASCAR is matched by very few individual races, ranking alongside the 1979 Daytona 500 (the first live flag-to-flag telecast, ending in a classic finish, and an infamous fight) and the 2001 Daytona 500 (the first race of NASCAR’s lucrative new FOX/NBC television deal, ending with the death of Dale Earnhardt), among others.

Such a close championship battle was unusual in 1992 — the 10-point margin was the closest in the history of NASCAR at the time, beating the 11-point margin in 1979 when Richard Petty beat Darrell Waltrip — and in many years the championship had already been decided before the final race.

It is certainly possible, however, that after the 1992 finale, the wheels started turning among the suits at NASCAR to try to figure out a way to have the same level of drama each and every year.

It was another 12 years before the Chase for the Cup was born in 2004, but in the interim there were very few close championship battles, and none nearly as tight or intense as the battle between Kulwicki, Elliott, and Allison that afternoon in Atlanta.

Once the first Chase was established, using the final 10 races of the season as a form of playoffs for the sport, the first edition in 2004 was very similar to 1992, with five drivers (including both Martin and Gordon) entering the final race at Homestead-Miami with a mathematical shot at the title, and three with a realistic chance.  The record for the closest championship battle was broken, as Kurt Busch won the title by a mere eight points over Jimmie Johnson, with Gordon 16 points back in third.

Over each of the first 10 editions of the Chase, the championship came down to the final race, although some years the battle was closer than others.  In 2011, in the first year of a simpler points system in which the basis is that each position is worth one point, Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards ended the Chase exactly tied, with Stewart winning the title based on the tiebreaker of most wins.

Beginning last year, in NASCAR’s new Chase Grid format, the title fight comes down to a winner-take-all finale with the top four championship contenders.  In the first finale of this new system, with drama to match the championship fight from 1992, Kevin Harvick won the race and the championship, with title contender Ryan Newman finishing in second, and three of the four Chase drivers having a shot to win the title on the final restart.

Sunday, as the latest installment of the Chase comes to a dramatic close, Gordon will be the only driver in the field who was on the track in the 1992 finale, and will also be one of the four drivers competing for a championship, alongside Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr.

As Gordon competes for a title in his final start before retirement, perhaps he should reflect on the historic championship battle in his first start 23 years ago as a big part of the reason he is trying to win a title in this format, and be thankful for the Chase.  Without the playoff-style series of races, Gordon would have had no shot at a series-long points championship this year, as he struggled for much of the season before running well enough in the Chase to qualify for the Championship Round.  (On the other hand, without the Chase Gordon would have theoretically won championships in 2007, 2010, and 2014.)

Changing of the Guard

Another impact the 1992 finale had on the sport is that it was a changing of the guard, with Gordon starting his career just as Petty ended his.

Petty wasn’t the only time to retire around this time, as Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, and David Pearson had all retired within the six years before Petty’s farewell, and Buddy Baker had run his final race earlier in the 1992 season.  Bobby Allison’s career also ended, albeit by injury and not retirement, four years before Petty retired.

Just as these stars were all leaving the sport, it created space for the stardom that Gordon would enjoy over the rest of the 1990’s, and through the rest of his career until his swan song season this year.

But Gordon’s entry wasn’t the only one during this time, as Bobby Labonte, who had debuted in 1991, moved up to the Cup series in 1993, and within ten years of that fateful Atlanta afternoon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, and Jimmie Johnson had all entered the Cup Series ranks.

The stars being phased out during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s were all from the South, and the statement that NASCAR was simply a regional sport based in the South still had some resonance.  Only five of the top 15 finishers in Atlanta in ’92 were from outside the South.

Gordon, on the other hand, was originally from California, and grew up in Indiana, giving the sport a national star to take into a new era and an explosion in popularity from coast to coast.  This continued with the rest of the drivers who came to the Cup ranks shortly after Gordon, with every driver mentioned above except Earnhardt Jr. coming from outside the South.

Kulwicki and Allison might would have been stars through the rest of the 90’s too — both were entering their prime with the 1992 championship battle — but within eight months of the 1992 finale, both were gone.

Kulwicki died on April 1, 1993, when a plane taking him and sponsor representatives for Hooters to a race at Bristol crashed on approach to the Tri-Cities Regional Airport, killing all five on board.

Allison died on July 13, 1993, while attempting to land a helicopter he was piloting in the infield during a test session at Talladega Superspeedway.

Kulwicki was 38, and Allison was 32, robbing the sport of the remaining careers of two of its best drivers.

While Elliott didn’t suffer an untimely death like his fellow ’92 title contenders, his career did go downhill after that day in Atlanta.  He only won one more race over the following two seasons with Junior Johnson, before racing as an owner-driver for the following six seasons, going winless, then winning four races in a three year stint with owner Ray Evernham (who was Gordon’s crew chief from his debut at Atlanta in ’92 through 2000).  Elliott’s final full-time season was 2003, although he ran occasional races until 2012.

While his career did extend into the new millennium, Elliott’s prime ended with his win at Atlanta and his near miss in the championship.

Full Circle

This weekend, as Gordon has shot at a career-ending title, the thought of such an ending is quite remarkable when compared to how all of the aforementioned stars ended their careers.  Those drivers didn’t so much finish with a flourish, but instead faded into the sunset.

Although Gordon is 11 years younger than Petty was in 1992, the emotions of the final season are similar, yet Gordon has a chance to end with a championship, something that has never been done (although Ned Jarrett retired midway through 1966 as the reigning champion), whereas Petty struggled through a mediocre farewell.

The storylines of this Sunday are similar to that of 1992, except this time the legend that is retiring doubles as one of the championship contenders.

Looking through the prism of this weekend’s championship battle in the Sprint Cup Series, it is important to look at 1992 as the first suspenseful and dramatic championship battle.

The finale in Atlanta that afternoon laid the groundwork for the sport’s future in more ways than one, making November 15, 1992 the day that NASCAR, in its modern form, was born.

 

 

1992 Hooters 500, Results
(Finish. Driver, Start, Team, Manufacturer, Laps Run, Laps Led, Points)

1. Bill Elliott, 11, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 328, 102, 180
2. Alan Kulwicki, 14, AK Racing, Ford, 328, 103, 180
3. Geoffrey Bodine, 8, Bud Moore Engineering, Ford, 328, 1, 170
4. Jimmy Spencer, 18, Bobby Allison Racing, Ford, 328, 0, 160
5. Terry Labonte, 6, Hagan Racing, Chevrolet, 328, 1, 160
6. Rusty Wallace, 15, Penske Racing, Pontiac, 328, 0, 150
7. Sterling Marlin, 12, Junior Johnson & Associates, Ford, 327, 0, 146
8. Jimmy Hensley, 34, Cale Yarborough Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 142
9. Ted Musgrave, 22, RaDiUs Motorsports, Ford, 326, 0, 138
10. Dale Jarrett, 32, Joe Gibbs Racing, Chevrolet, 326, 0, 134
Notables:
13. Harry Gant, 29, Leo Jackson Motorsports, Oldsmobile, 324, 0, 124
16. Kyle Petty, 20, SABCO Racing, Pontiac, 320, 0, 115
23. Darrell Waltrip, 24, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, Chevrolet, 307, 0, 94
26. Dale Earnhardt, 3, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet, 299, 44, 90
27. Davey Allison, 17, Robert Yates Racing, Ford, 285, 5, 87
31. Jeff Gordon, 21, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet, 164, 0, 70
32. Mark Martin, 4, Roush Racing, Ford, 160, 47, 72
35. Richard Petty, 39, Petty Enterprises, Pontiac, 95, 0, 58

 

1992 Winston Cup, Final Standings
1. Alan Kulwicki, AK Racing, 4078

2. Bill Elliott, Junior Johnson & Associates, 4068, -10
3. Davey Allison, Robert Yates Racing, 4015, -63
4. Harry Gant, Leo Jackson Motorsports, 3955, -123
5. Kyle Petty, SABCO Racing, 3945, -133
6. Mark Martin, Roush Racing, 3887, -191
7. Ricky Rudd, Hendrick Motorsports, 3735, -343
8. Terry Labonte, Hagan Racing, 3674, -404
9. Darrell Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip Motorsports, 3659, -419
10. Sterling Marlin, Junior Johnson & Associates, 3603, -475
Notables:
12. Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress Racing, 3574, -504
13. Rusty Wallace, Penske Racing, 3556, -522
19. Dale Jarrett, Joe Gibbs Racing, 3251, -827
26. Richard Petty, Petty Enterprises, 2731, -1347
79. Jeff Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports, 70, -4008

College Football Power Rankings for Week 11

There are just two weeks left in the college football regular season, and we are in the midst of an incredible race to reach College Football Playoff.  In my estimation, there are 19 teams that still have a chance to make the four-team tournament, if things fall their way, and as many as 12 have a realistic shot if they win out, particularly since several of these teams still have games left against each other.  That being said, here’s how the contenders stack up in this week’s power rankings:

1. Clemson (10-0, Last Week: 1st, College Football Playoff Ranking: 1st)
It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest win, but the Tigers got out of the Carrier Dome at Syracuse (3-7) still undefeated, on the strength of Deshaun Watson throwing for 368 yards and rushing for 105 yards, accounting for three touchdowns.  This week, the Tigers host Wake Forest (3-7), who hasn’t won in Death Valley since 1998, a week before their rivalry game against South Carolina (3-7).

2. Alabama (9-1, LW: 3rd, CFP: 2nd)
The Crimson Tide faced a road test Saturday at Mississippi State (7-3), and passed it with flying colors, beating the Bulldogs, 31-6.  Derrick Henry, who according to some analysts has now become the Heisman frontrunner, ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns in Starkville, and now totals 1,458 yards for the season.  This week the Tide host Charleston Southern (9-1), a top 10 team in FCS, before traveling to Auburn (5-5) for the Iron Bowl next week.

3. Ohio State (10-0, LW: 2nd, CFP: 3rd)
The Buckeyes extended their record Big Ten winning streak on Saturday, winning their 30th straight conference game, 28-3, over Illinois (5-5).  Ezekiel Elliott, who is a Heisman contender, rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the win.  This week, the Buckeyes (finally) play a ranked opponent, beginning a stretch of potentially three straight such games, as they host Michigan State (9-1) in a huge game for both Big Ten and CFP implications.

4. Notre Dame (9-1, LW: 6th, CFP: 4th)
While the Irish did win Saturday’s game against Wake Forest (3-7), 28-7, they certainly could have played better against such a struggling team.  The Demon Deacons outgained the Irish 340-282, and if not for a couple breaks that went Notre Dame’s way, this game could have been much closer.  One bright spot for Notre Dame was running back Josh Adams, who in the absence of starter C.J. Prosise fan for 141 yards and a touchdown.  This week the Irish play Boston College (3-7) at Fenway Park, before traveling to Stanford (8-2) for a huge game next week.

5. Oklahoma State (10-0, LW: 5th, CFP: 6th)
History nearly repeated itself Saturday, as Iowa State (3-7), who ended the Cowboys’ chance at a national title in 2011 in a monumental upset, nearly did it again.  But this time, the Cowboys survived, 35-31, led by sophomore quarterback Mason Rudolph, who threw for 327 yards and a touchdown, and is somewhat quietly having a solid season.  There are two regular season games left for the Cowboys, and both are huge, but both are at home, as they will face Baylor (9-1) on Saturday and Oklahoma (9-1) next week in the “Bedlam” rivalry.  If the Cowboys win both, or even lose one and get some help, they will win the Big 12.

6. Oklahoma (9-1, LW: 13th, CFP: 7th)
The Sooners looked dead after an October 10 loss to Texas, but have rebounded nicely since then to get back into the Playoff race, and made big strides towards that goal Saturday by beating Baylor (9-1) in Waco, 44-34.  Quarterback Baker Mayfield may have thrust himself into Heisman contention with an excellent performance, one in which the statline of 270 yards, three touchdowns, and an interception don’t tell the full story of how well he played.  The Sooners now have a tough two weeks ahead which will define their season, starting this week at home against TCU (9-1), before traveling next week to rival Oklahoma State (10-0).

7. Iowa (10-0, LW: 9th, CFP: 5th)
While Iowa fans are probably concerned their team only won 40-35 against Minnesota (4-6), keep in mind that the Gophers have played a close game this year against not just the Hawkeyes, but also Ohio State, Michigan, and TCU.  In the meantime, the Iowa offense had one of their best performances, scoring 40 points and gaining 506 yards, including 195 yards and three touchdowns on the ground from LeShun Daniels.  The Hawkeyes, who need one win to clinch the Big Ten West, host Purdue (2-8) on Saturday, and travel to Nebraska (5-6) the day after Thanksgiving, before likely playing Ohio State, Michigan State, or Michigan in the Big Ten title game.

8. Florida (9-1, LW: 10th, CFP: 8th)
The Gators didn’t necessarily play their best offensive game Saturday at South Carolina (3-7), but held the struggling Gamecocks offense scoreless for three quarters in a 24-14 win.  It was the second straight week the Gators haven’t looked good offensively, as although Treon Harris did throw for 256 yards and a touchdown, he also threw two interceptions.  A tune-up game against Florida Atlantic (2-8) is next, before a rivalry game against Florida State (8-2), and the SEC Championship Game, likely against Alabama (9-1).

9. Baylor (8-1, LW: 4th, CFP: 10th)
The Bears suffered their first loss of the season on Saturday, at the hands of Oklahoma (9-1), 44-34.  The Sooners held the Bears to their second lowest offensive output of the season at 34 points (they scored “only” 31 against Kansas State), and Jarrett Stidham didn’t play as well in his second game as a starter as he did in his first, as he threw two interceptions.  There’s still plenty for the Bears to play for, as they could still win the Big 12 and, if things fall right, make the Playoff, but they must win out to do so.  The next two weeks won’t be easy though, as they travel to Oklahoma State (10-0) and TCU (9-1).

10. Michigan State (9-1, LW: 11th, CFP: 9th)
The Spartans defeated Maryland (2-8), 24-7, on Saturday, despite being outgained by the Terrapins, 289-262.  Quarterback Connor Cook suffered a shoulder injury in the game, causing the Spartans to lean on their run game, which gained 141 of their yards in the game, but Cook says he’ll be ready to play this Saturday.  That certainly is good news for Sparty, as they head into a huge game at Ohio State (10-0).

11. Houston (10-0, LW: 16th, CFP: 19th)
12. Michigan (8-2, LW: 12th, CFP: 12th)
13. TCU (9-1, LW: 14th, CFP: 18th)
14. Stanford (8-2, LW: 7th, CFP: 11th)
15. LSU (7-2, LW: 8th, CFP: 15th)
16. North Carolina (9-1, LW: 18th, CFP: 17th)
17. Florida State (8-2, LW: 21st, CFP: 14th)
18. Navy (8-1, LW: 22nd, CFP: 16th)
19. Northwestern (8-2, LW: 23rd, CFP: 20th)
20. Oregon (7-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 23rd)
21. Wisconsin (8-2, LW: 25th, CFP: 25th)
22. Utah (8-2, LW: 15th, CFP: 13th)
23. Washington State (7-3, LW: unranked, CFP: unranked)
24. Mississippi State (7-3, LW: 20th, CFP: unranked)
25. USC (7-3, LW: unranked, CFP: 24th)

Fell from Rankings:  Temple (8-2, LW: 17th), UCLA (7-3, LW: 19th), Memphis (8-2, LW: 24th)

Also ranked in CFP rankings:  Memphis (8-2, LW: 24th, CFP: 21st), Ole Miss (7-3, CFP: 22nd)