A Trip to the Beach

Each February, an entire industry makes a trip to the beach.  But this trip has no resemblance to vacation or leisure.

This is a business trip; a pilgrimage for NASCAR’s competitors and its fans that marks the rebirth of a sport in a new season, and a quest for the sport’s greatest triumph.

Forty drivers and teams have not come to the beach to relax, but to race, trying to reach the sport’s pinnacle and earn its greatest reward, the title of Daytona 500 champion.

The beach has been a haven of speed for over a century.  Speed was sought on the smooth sand, practically from the invention of the automobile.  Organized races began eight decades ago, leading to Bill France sanctioning a sport in 1948.

When NASCAR outgrew the beach in just a decade, France built a new mecca five miles inland, establishing a venue that is The World Center of Racing, and the spectacle that is The Great American Race.

As NASCAR’s elite make this expedition for the 59th time, they will reminisce on the epic events of yesteryear that coax their return.

1976. 1979. 1990. 1998. 2007. Photo finishes in both the first and most recent installments.

The annals here are filled with speed, prestige, triumph, and even tragedy.  This annual occasion has seen it all, yet still gives us something new each February.

A race that has been won in fortuitous upsets by some has been notoriously hard to win for others.  Some call it a crapshoot, while others embrace the element of chance and luck the race presents.

This beach, this week, is not quiet with the peaceful rolling of waves, but features the roar of throngs of followers, exceeded only by the roar of 40 engines, racing door-to-door for the coveted checkered flag.

For all, it’s a memorable trip to the beach.  For one, it will be a monumental trip to victory lane.

 

 

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)
2015 Joey Logano
2016 Denny Hamlin

Elliott, Hamlin Notch Duel Victories

In Thursday night’s Can-Am Duels at Daytona, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin each earned historic wins in the events which set the field for Sunday’s 59th running of the Daytona 500.

Duel 1

Chase Elliott, who won the Daytona 500 pole on Sunday, won his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, albeit an unofficial one, in the first Duel, leading 25 of the race’s 60 laps.

Elliott joins some elite company with the win, as he became the first Daytona 500 pole sitter to win a Duel since Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1996.  He is the first driver since Jeff Gordon in 1993 to make a Duel win his first win in a Cup Series car.

And while the win is unofficial, the Duels did award championship points for the first time since 1971, with the top 10 earning points (10 for first, nine for second, etc.).  The last drivers before Elliott (and Hamlin in Duel 2) to earn points for a Duel victory were David Pearson and Pete Hamilton.

As a result, Elliott and Hamlin will enter the Daytona 500 as co-points leaders.  The last time anyone led the standings before the Daytona 500 was in 1981, in the era when a race was run at Riverside, Calif. in January, was Bobby Allison.

Winning the Daytona 500 pole and a Duel will give Elliott an opportunity to win the rare “Daytona triple crown” of the pole, a Duel, and the Daytona 500.  If he can win Sunday, Elliott would be the first to accomplish the feat since… his father, Bill Elliott, in 1985.  Fireball Roberts in 1962 and Cale Yarborough in 1984 are the only others to pull off the rare triple.

Elliott earned the win by outdueling a star-studded top seven–every driver in the top six (Jamie McMurray finished second, Kevin Harvick third, Brad Keselowski fourth, Matt Kenseth fifth, and Trevor Bayne sixth) has either won the Daytona 500 or the series championship, and seventh-place Martin Truex Jr. finished second in the Daytona 500 last year.

Duel 2

Denny Hamlin, the 2016 Daytona 500 champion, passed Dale Earnhardt Jr. with two laps to go en route to his third career Duel win.

Hamlin won the race with very little help, as his three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates were in the first Duel, and only three fellow Toyotas were in the field, with none finishing higher than 15th.

Hamlin also bested the Stewart-Haas Racing Fords of Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, who finished second, third and sixth, as well as four cars in the top 10 from Richard Childress Racing and their allied teams, led by A.J. Allmendinger and Austin Dillon in fourth and fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., who had won Duels the last two years and led 53 of the 60 laps in his first competition since July, was unable to block Hamlin’s run entering turn three on the penultimate lap, and faded to a sixth place finish, though he will start second in the Daytona 500 after earning that spot in pole qualifying.

Hamlin becomes the 10th driver to win a Duel as the defending Daytona 500 champion, and seven of the previous nine have each won multiple Daytona 500s (and one of the other two is Dale Earnhardt):  Pete Hamilton (1971), Cale Yarborough (1984, 1985), Bill Elliott (1986), Sterling Marlin (1995), Dale Jarrett (1997), Dale Earnhardt Sr. (1999), Michael Waltrip (2002), Jeff Gordon (2006), and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2015).

News and Notes

Corey LaJoie (Duel 1) and D.J. Kennington (Duel 2) each raced their way into their first Daytona 500 in Thursday’s Duels.  LaJoie is the son of former NASCAR XFinity Series champion Randy LaJoie, while Kennington is the first Canadian to make the Daytona 500 field since Trevor Boys in 1988.  Kennington will start 28th and LaJoie will start 31st, while Timmy Hill and Reed Sorenson failed to qualify.

Another feel-good story from the Duels is Cole Whitt, who drove to a 10th-place finish in Duel 1, and will start 17th on Sunday.  Whitt, driving a #72 TriStar Motorsports Ford that resembles Benny Parsons’ cars from the 1970s, earned one championship point, and sits tied for 19th in the standings entering the Daytona 500 (he was briefly 10th in points before Duel 2).  The 25-year-old Whitt, who has run the Cup Series full-time since 2014, has never finished higher than 31st in the season standings, although he did finish 11th in the Coke Zero 400 last July at Daytona.

     UPDATE:  With Martin Truex Jr. and A.J. Allmendinger failing post-race inspection (see below), Whitt is tied for 17th in points.

Michael Waltrip finished 17th in the 21-car field of Duel 2, and will start 3oth on Sunday.  The FOX Sports analyst and two-time Daytona 500 winner (2001, 2003) has announced he will retire from NASCAR after Sunday’s race, when he will run an “Aaron’s Dream Machine” with the car number 15, the number he drove in his pair of 500 victories.

None of the strong rookie class of Daniel Suarez, Ty Dillon and Erik Jones will start the Daytona 500 near the front.  Suarez, the 2015 XFinity Series champion, finished 11th in Duel 1 and will start 19th.  Dillon finished 10th in Duel 2, and will start 18th, while Jones picked up damage in Duel 2 and finished 19th, and will start 34th on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr., A.J. Allmendinger and Chris Buescher each failed post-race inspection after their respective duels.  All three will start at the rear in the Daytona 500, while Truex and Allmendinger will lose the points they earned in their Duels.

Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney and Paul Menard will race backup cars in the Daytona 500 after damage sustained in the Duels, and will start at the rear of the field.

 

 

 

Daytona 500 Starting Lineup
Row 1:  Chase Elliott, Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Row 2:  Jamie McMurray, Denny Hamlin
Row 3:  Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer
Row 4:  Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch
Row 5:  Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon
Row 6:  Trevor Bayne, Danica Patrick
Row 7:  Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman
Row 8:  Joey Logano, Kyle Larson
Row 9:  Cole Whitt, Ty Dillon
Row 10:  Daniel Suarez, David Ragan
Row 11:  Kyle Busch, Michael McDowell
Row 12:  Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jimmie Johnson
Row 13:  Matt DiBenedetto, Kasey Kahne
Row 14:  Landon Cassill, D.J. Kennington
Row 15:  Joey Gase, Michael Waltrip
Row 16:  Corey LaJoie, Jeffrey Earnhardt
Row 17:  Paul Menard, Erik Jones
Row 18:  Martin Truex Jr., Ryan Blaney
Row 19:  Chris Buescher, A.J. Allmendinger
Row 20:  Brendan Gaughan, Elliott Sadler
Failed to qualify:  Timmy Hill, Reed Sorenson

Fast Five: Biggest Storylines Entering 2017 NASCAR Season

The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season starts tonight, with the Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona, a non-points event with an all-star field.

As always, there are a plethora of storylines entering the new season and Daytona Speedweeks.  Here are the biggest subplots entering the new year:

5. Johnson Goes For Championship Eight

After winning his record-tying seventh Cup Series championship in November, the 2017 season is Jimmie Johnson’s first chance to win an unprecedented eighth title and break the record of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

Johnson has won his seven titles over the last 11 seasons, while Earnhardt won his seven over 15 seasons and Petty won seven over 16 seasons.  Even if Johnson, 41, does not win his eighth title in 2017, he is expected to have several competitive years left to try to break the record.

4. Daniel Suarez enters Cup, replacing Carl Edwards 

Carl Edwards’ retirement at 37 came as a surprise to everyone in the NASCAR garage.  His replacement, however, was not as surprising to insiders, although it is a name casual fans may not recognize.

Daniel Suarez, 25, replaces Edwards in the #19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota after winning the XFinity Series championship in 2016, becoming the first minority champion in any NASCAR national series, and the first born outside the U.S. (Mexico).

The very talented Suarez will immediately be a threat to win races and qualify for the playoffs, and joins a rookie class that also includes Erik Jones (#77 Furniture Row Racing Toyota) and Ty Dillon (brother of Austin, #13 Germain Racing Chevrolet).

3. Changes at Stewart-Haas Racing

Tony Stewart also retired after the 2016 season, and is replaced in the #14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford by Clint Bowyer.

SHR, which consists of Bowyer, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, is changing to Ford for the 2017 season after the last 14 seasons (eight with Stewart as co-owner) with Chevrolet.  The move allows SHR to become one of the two co-leading teams with Ford (alongside Penske Racing), after spending their tenure with Chevy in the shadow of Hendrick Motorsports.  With the move, SHR also had to change engine providers; after using Hendrick engines for their entire history, the company now moves to Roush-Yates Engines.

The team is also is fighting a developing legal battle with ex-sponsor Nature’s Bakery.  The company ceased its sponsorship of Patrick after the first year of a three-year contract, as the small company was struggling to pay for their sponsorship.  As a result, SHR has sued Nature’s Bakery for a breach of contract, and the company has countersued.  Patrick will still be sponsored for 2017 by TaxAct and Aspen Dental, the latter of which extended their sponsorship to fill some of the void left by Nature’s Bakery.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Returns

Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed the last 18 races of the 2016 season after suffering a concussion, one which he says is at least his fourth such injury in racing.

The son of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed 16 years ago today in the Daytona 500, has been voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver for 14 straight seasons, capitalizing on both his father’s popularity and his moderate Cup Series success.

The 42-year old Earnhardt Jr., who married on Dec. 31 and enters a “contract year” in 2017, returns at arguably his most successful track, as he will make his first start of any kind since July in next week’s Daytona 500.  He will not race in the Advance Auto Parts Clash tonight; Alex Bowman, who earned a spot in tonight’s field by winning a pole at Phoenix last year, will drive the #88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

Earnhardt Jr. is a 26-time Cup Series race winner, and has finished in the top five in points four times, including a third-place points finish in 2003.  He is one of 11 drivers with multiple Daytona 500 wins, and can become just the sixth with three or more with a win next Sunday.

1. NASCAR’s Changes for 2017

NASCAR in 2017 will look different from any NASCAR season in the past, for multiple reasons.

First, the Cup Series has a new title sponsor.  What was the Sprint Cup Series in now the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, as the energy drink company signed a “multiyear deal” with NASCAR back in December.

A new identity for the Cup Series made this offseason natural timing for other changes, and NASCAR has made several.

The biggest change is the new race format:  races will be divided into three segments, called “stages,” with points being awarded to the top 10 after each stage in addition to the full field at the race’s completion.  Stage winners will also recieve bonus points for the newly-named playoffs (formerly “The Chase”), as will the top 10 in regular season points, and those bonuses will carry through all the way until the Round of 8 (previously, bonus points only applied to the initial round, the Round of 16).

Many say the result will be better racing throughout the entirety of the event, although there are many skeptics, myself included.  Tonight’s 75-lap exhibition has no stages, so we won’t see the new format in action until next week’s Daytona 500.

In addition, NASCAR announced a new damaged vehicle policy for 2017.  Teams will no longer be allowed to replace major parts on damaged cars, and while they will be allowed to fix damage on original parts, they will only be allowed five minutes on pit road to perform such repairs.  Any car that has to go behind the wall or to the garage will be out of the race.

This rule is a safety initiative by NASCAR, as often times in the past when teams have sent patched-up cars back on the track they have caused accidents.  How much it affects the racing–and how much attrition goes up–are a big unknown right now; this change will potentially be seen in tonight’s Advance Auto Parts Clash (i.e. a hypothetical “big one” takes out 14 of the 17-car field).

How all these changes affect the competition, including driving styles and strategy, will be a big storyline throughout the entire 2017 season.

Fast Five: Greatest Moments of 2016 MLB Postseason

It’s baseball season.

Pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training for a few teams on Monday, and most report today.  All of them have one goal in mind:  playing (and winning) in October.

Sure, the 2017 postseason is a long way off, and while many (including me) will try to predict who will reach the playoffs, there are always surprise teams, especially in baseball.

Whoever makes the playoffs will have a tough act to follow, after so many great moments in the 2016 postseason, culminating with the first Chicago Cubs World Series title in 108 years.

As we look ahead to the 2017 season, here’s a look back on the best moments from last October (and early November):

5.  The Cubs comeback to win NLDS

After the Cubs led the best-of-5 NLDS 2-0, the San Francisco Giants came back to win Game 3 in extra innings and stay alive.

In Game 4, the Cubs trailed 5-2 after eight innings, and Giants starter Matt Moore looked unstoppable.  However, Moore due to a high pitch count Moore had to come out after the eighth, handing the game over to the shaky Giants bullpen.  A pair of Giants relievers allowed four Cubs to score, including a game-tying 2-RBI single by Willson Contreras and a go-ahead RBI single by Javier Baez.

When Aroldis Chapman got the save, the Cubs had completed the largest ninth-inning comeback in a series-clinching game in MLB history, and ended the Giants run of “even year” dominance (they won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014).


4.  Two Blue Jays walkoff clinchers

The Toronto Blue Jays reached the ALCS, doing so on the strength of walk-off wins to clinch both the AL Wild Card Game and the ALDS.

In the Wild Card Game, with lights-out Orioles closer Zach Britton still in the bullpen in the 11th inning, Edwin Encarnacion hit a 3-run homer off Ubaldo Jimenez, giving the Blue Jays a 5-2 win to advance to the ALDS.

In Game 3 of the ALDS, with Toronto leading the series 2-0, a Russell Martin grounder seemed poised to send the 6-6 game to the 11th.  But after a bad throw pulled Texas Rangers 1B Mitch Moreland off the base, Josh Donaldson broke for the plate, beating the throw to score, winning the game and the series.

This play had some additional procedural drama, as the Rangers appealed that there had been obstruction at second base on Encarnacion.  When the play was reviewed and upheld, the top-seeded Rangers had been swept, and the Blue Jays were in their second straight ALCS.


3.  Indians shutout wins pennant

The Cleveland Indians progressed through the playoffs on the strength of their incredible pitching.  After ousting the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS to end David Ortiz’s career, the Indians took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS against Toronto.

The Blue Jays won Game 4, and many favored Toronto to win Game 5, as Cleveland turned to rookie Ryan Merritt, who had just one regular season start.

Merritt, who inherited a 1-0 lead after a run scored on an error in the top of the first, went 4.2 scoreless innings (falling one out short of qualifying for the win), and the Indians bullpen finished the job (one inning by Bryan Shaw, 2.2 innings by Andrew Miller, one inning by Cody Allen).

All told, it was a six-hit shutout of a potent Blue Jays lineup, as Cleveland clinched their first pennant in 19 years.  They would eventually fall just short in the World Series, and enter 2017 seeking their first title since 1948.


2.  Kershaw saves Game 5

The winner-take-all Game 5 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals was the longest nine-inning game in MLB postseason history–and was well worth the time investment to watch.

Starters Max Scherzer (WAS) and Rich Hill (LAD) both pitched well, allowing a single run.  Scherzer’s run was a game-tying homer in the seventh by Joc Pederson.

That only began the wild seventh–after Scherzer was relieved, Carlos Ruiz gave the Dodgers a lead with an RBI single, and Justin Turner stretched it to 4-1 with a 2-RBI double.  In the bottom half, Chris Heisey hit a 2-run pinch-hit homer to make it 4-3.

After the homer, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen entered with no outs in the seventh.  He stranded the bases loaded in the seventh, and another runner in the eighth.

With two on and one out in the ninth, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw entered the game on one day rest.

Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop up, then struck out Wilmer Difo to end the game, earning his first major league save to clinch a postseason series (and his first save at any level since 2006 in rookie ball).


1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908 in Game 7 for the ages

After six thrilling games, the 112th World Series between the Indians and Cubs was tied at 3-3.  The Indians had led the Series 3-1, but the Cubs had come back to force Game 7.

Before Game 7, I called it baseball’s “game of the century” thus far, fully expecting that it would not live up to that lofty level of hype.  And yet, the game far surpassed it, legitimately becoming the greatest baseball game played in the 21st century.

Game 7 had everything.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a home run, and Javier Baez and David Ross added solo homers for the Cubs, with Ross’s coming in the final at-bat of his career.  Cubs starter Jon Lester came in in relief, giving up one earned run in three innings.

The Cubs committed three errors, and two Indians scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series game since 1911.  Cubs leads of 5-1 and 6-3 evaporated almost instantly in the eighth, with Rajai Davis tying the game with a 2-run homer.

It became the first Game 7 to go to extra innings since 1997 (which the Indians lost to the Florida Marlins), and that was put on hold for 17 minutes by a passing shower (the first World Series rain delay since 2008).

Ben Zobrist’s RBI double put the Cubs ahead, and Miguel Montero added an RBI that turned out to be a big insurance run.  In the bottom of the 10th, Davis singled to pull to within 8-7, before Mike Montgomery came in to pitch and took just two pitches to record his first professional save, a final out that will be replayed forever.

A story that many veteran writers called the best story they had ever covered–the Cubs finally winning the World Series–was an appropriate end to an insane 2016 MLB postseason.  After Cubs fans waited 108 years,

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 2/13

It’s been a topsy-turvy last two weeks in the ACC since my last power rankings.

Every team except NC State and Boston College has won at least once, and 10 of the league’s 15 teams have won more than once.  Every team except Duke has lost a game, while nine have lost multiple games.

As a result, ranking these teams from top to bottom is becoming more difficult each week.  It is, however, made a little bit easier when the teams are divided into tiers, something the standings have already done naturally.

That said, here is how the teams stack up this week:

The Top Tier

1. North Carolina (21-5, 9-3 ACC, Previous Ranking: 3rd, AP Poll: 10th)
The Tar Heels lead the ACC standings, and these rankings, on the strength of a 13-0 home record, and a 6-4 away record, including a 3-3 conference road record in the best conference in the land.  Offensively, the Tar Heels remain very strong statistically in points (87.4 per game, 6th nationally), rebounding (44.2, 1st) and assists (18.3, 3rd).  They lost at Duke on Thursday, but I rarely penalize a team for losing at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

2. Virginia (18-6, 8-4 ACC, PR: 2nd, AP: 14th)
In the first draft of these rankings, written at halftime of last night’s Virginia-Virginia Tech game, Virginia was at the top.  But after the Cavaliers blew a 14-point halftime lead in a double-overtime loss, they dropped from that perch.  People focus on Virginia’s defense, and rightfully so, but while their offense is ranked 270th in points per game, they are 17th in offensive efficiency (an explanation here is that they are 2nd to last in tempo).  We’ll know just how good the Cavaliers are after this week, with back-to-back games at Duke and North Carolina.

3. Louisville (20-5, 8-4 ACC, PR: 1st, AP: 8th)
As good a team as Louisville has had since joining the ACC, they just can’t seem to beat Virginia.  The Cardinals are 1-5 in games against the Cavaliers since joining the ACC, with all six games being between two ranked teams, and Louisville has lost both meetings this year by eight and 16 points.  The Cardinals are a real threat to win the ACC Tournament–as long as they don’t run into Tony Bennett’s packline defense that they just can’t seem to figure out.

4. Florida State (21-5, 9-4 ACC, PR: 4th, AP: 17th)
The Seminoles, who are 16-0 at home, are 6-1 against ranked opponents, making them the only ACC team who is over .500 in such games.  Road play is the ‘Noles biggest weakness–in a current 3-3 stretch, all three losses are away from Tallahassee.  There are no “easy games” in the ACC, but the Seminoles do have a relatively slate over their next three games, as they are all against the bottom four teams in the league.

5. Duke (20-5, 8-4 ACC, PR: 7th, AP: 12th)
After a midseason swoon saw the Blue Devils lose three of four in January, they are suddenly hot again, having won five straight since including Thursday night’s win over North Carolina.  Looking back over the season, the Blue Devils are 13-1 at home, with the only loss coming on Jan. 23 to NC State, in what is now one of the season’s real headscratchers.  Duke is 2-3 on the road, and will be tested in such a game at Virginia, before returning home to meet Wake Forest, whose last win at Cameron Indoor included a stellar performance by… Tim Duncan (it’s been a while:  Jan. 11, 1997).

6. Notre Dame (19-7, 8-5 ACC, PR: 5th, AP: 25th)
The Irish have alleviated their four-game losing streak with home wins over Wake Forest and Florida State.  The biggest weakness for the Irish is rebounding:  strangely enough, even with double-double machine Bonzie Colson (16.7 ppg, 10.8 rpg), the team ranks 245th nationally (34.7 rpg).  On one hand, the Irish are entering a stretch that is easy by the ACC’s lofty standards, meeting Boston College and NC State this week; on the other hand, it still may not be easy, as both are on the road.

The Middle Tier

7. Syracuse (16-10, 8-5 ACC, PR: 8th)
The Orange are playing well, and are 8-5 in the ACC, just a game and a half behind North Carolina at the crowded top of the league.  That said, they are still a middle-tier team to me because of their full resume, which includes poor play in the non-conference portion of the schedule.  The Orange are an NCAA Tournament bubble team, something that just isn’t said about top-tier ACC teams.  ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Orange in the tournament, as the last team with a bye to the Round of 64 (thus avoiding the “First Four”).

8. Virginia Tech (17-7, 6-6 ACC, PR: 6th)
At halftime last night, I thought the Hokies were beginning a free fall.  They had lost two straight and three of four, and were trailing Virginia by 14 at home in a rivalry game.  Then the Hokies came back, winning in double overtime on Seth Allen’s lane jumper.  Now, the Hokies face back-to-back road games at Pittsburgh and Louisville, but then return home for three of their final four games.

9. Wake Forest (15-10, 6-7 ACC, PR: 12th)
The Demon Deacons are in their best stretch of basketball since 2010.  That season was the last time they made the NCAA Tournament, and currently this year’s edition is squarely on the bubble, as the first team out of the projected field on Bracket Matrix, and the fourth team out on Lunardi’s bracket.  One knock against Wake’s tournament chances is that they are 0-6 against ranked opponents, and the only other ACC team without a ranked win is Boston College.  They will have two more chances before the ACC Tournament to get one (at Duke, Louisville), but first head to Clemson tomorrow.

10. Miami (16-8, 6-6 ACC, PR: 10th)
The Hurricanes are projected in the 9- to 10-seed range in NCAA projections, on the strength of a win over North Carolina and no bad losses.  They nearly picked up another signature win, taking Louisville to the wire on the road, and will have additional chances coming up.  But first comes two games against Georgia Tech and Clemson where, in regards to NCAA positioning, wins may not help as much as losses would hurt.

11. Georgia Tech (15-10, 6-6 ACC, PR: 9th)
Just getting Georgia Tech to this point, in the cluster around .500 in the middle of the ACC pack, may be enough to make first-year coach Josh Pastner the ACC Coach of the Year.  This has been done strictly with defense:  the Jackets rank 254th in kenpom.com‘s adjusted offensive efficiency, but are eighth defensively.  The Yellow Jackets are projected by most to be just outside the NCAA field, and (strangely enough in the loaded ACC) they only have one game left against a ranked opponent.

The Bottom Tier

12. Clemson (13-11, 3-9 ACC, PR: 11th)
Some would place Clemson in the middle tier of the league, and on paper they should be a middle tier team.  They are, in fact, Lunardi’s second-to-last team in the NCAA field, although Bracket Matrix has them as the sixth team out.  But at some point, strength of schedule (third-toughest nationally) will stop carrying this team in those discussions, because at some point they have to start winning.  The Tigers have lost three straight, and nine of 11 after winning their ACC opener at Wake Forest, and now face the Deacs again trying to find the same late-game magic they had on Dec. 31.

13. Pittsburgh (14-11, 3-9 ACC, PR: 14th)
Every year has that team in the ACC that can’t seem to win a close game, and this year it’s been the Panthers.  There have been some blowouts, but most of their ACC losses have been close.  After an 11-point road win at Boston College, Saturday the Panthers finally won a close one, beating Syracuse to move out of a last-place tie in the league.  Will they be able to keep the momentum up?  Maybe–three of their next four games are at home, but two of those games are against North Carolina and Florida State.

14. NC State (14-12, 3-10 ACC, PR: 13th)
The splits for NC State this season are 11-4 at home and 1-7 away, but lately the problem has been everywhere.  The upset at Duke feels ages ago, as the Wolfpack have lost five straight since, getting absolutely destroyed in three of those games, and now they have to face North Carolina, a team that beat them by 51 in January.  The Pack have possibly the best player in the conference–Dennis Smith Jr. (18.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 6.8 apg)–but that’s the only positive development this season in Raleigh.

Update:  According to reports, Mark Gottfried has been fired by NC State, effective at season’s end.  The firing has not been confirmed by the university.

15. Boston College (9-17, 2-11 ACC, PR: 15th)
For a lot of teams, whether or not they can win a few games on the road is the key to a successful season.  But forget away games for the Eagles–they’re now just 8-8 at home overall, and just 2-5 in conference home games.  after showing some promise early in the ACC portion of the schedule, the Eagles have lost nine straight, returning to a place they’ve resided for the last several years:  last place.

Column: In Agreeing to Phillips Trade, Braves and Reds Going in Different Directions

Three-time All-Star second baseman Brandon Phillips has reportedly been traded from the Cincinnati Reds to the Atlanta Braves, in exchange for two minor leaguers, LHP Andrew McKirahan and RHP Carlos Portuondo.

Phillips, who has played for the Reds since 2006, waived his no-trade clause, a clause he has used to nix multiple trades previously, to return to his home state of Georgia.  The Stone Mountain native has over 12 years of MLB experience, and will turn 36 in June.

The Reds agreed to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million salary for 2017, the final season of a 10-year deal he signed before the 2008 season.

The Braves and Reds both won an identical 68 games in the 2016 season (Braves 68-93, Reds 68-94), but now after agreeing to this deal, two of the game’s oldest franchises have shown how much they are going in opposite directions entering the 2017 season and beyond.

The Braves are on the back end of a rebuilding project, and enter 2017 in a position to be much more competitive than they have been the last two seasons (67-95 in 2015, 68-93 in 2016).

After the firing of GM Frank Wren in 2014, the front office agreed rebuilding the Braves’ minor-league system was the best solution for long-term success, and the club went all in on a massive rebuild.  As a result, every ranking of farm systems has the Braves at or near the top, and most pundits project the major league club to be more competitive in 2017 and contenders for several years after.

The Braves reportedly first attempted to trade for Phillips early in the offseason, before the free-agent signing of Sean Rodriguez.  But Saturday, after the announcement that Rodriguez would be out three to five months with a shoulder injury suffered in a car accident, the team stared at a possible weak spot at second base, and trade talks with the Reds resumed, and then commenced, quickly.

Phillips, who hit .291 with 11 HR, 64 RBI and 34 doubles in 2016, is no longer at his peak performance–he is a three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, both most recently in 2013–but is still a solid addition for the Braves, adding more offensive depth and another veteran to lead a clubhouse that blends lots of youth and experience.

Adding a local player, from Redan High School in the eastern Atlanta suburbs, won’t hurt the Braves at the box office either, as they move into a new home at SunTrust Park for the 2017 season.

The addition of Phillips fits the Braves’ pattern from this offseason.  With a bevy of prospects in the minor leagues who could be big-league ready in a year or two, the Braves don’t want long-term deals with players who may block said prospects’ path at their given position.

As a result, the team signed veteran free agent pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey (both former Cy Young winners), traded for Jaime Garcia, and has now traded for Phillips.  All except Dickey (club option for 2018) will be free agents after 2017.

With these additions, the young talent like Freddie Freeman, Julio Teheran, Dansby Swanson and others already at the major league level, and the highly-touted prospects the team has waiting in the wings in the minor leagues, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for the Braves, and it’s not just a candle, but a flood light.

The turnaround of the club’s outlook in just a two-year span since starting their overhaul is impressive, especially considering how many other teams in baseball have been somewhat non-committal as they entered a rebuilding phase, and now appear to face a lengthy period of mediocrity as a result.

The Reds appear to potentially be one of these teams.  After three playoff appearances in four seasons between 2010-13, the Reds dropped to 76-86 in 2014 and 64-98 in 2015.  The core of those playoff teams–players including Phillips, Johnny Cueto, Jay Bruce, Mat Latos, Edinson Volquez and Aroldis Chapman–is gone, with the exception of Joey Votto (signed through 2023).

While some of those players left in trades (others were free agents) and allowed the team to get prospects, the Reds’ farm system is considered by most analysts to be mid-pack.  The team does own the ninth-ranked prospect in the just-released Baseball America Top 100 (3B Nick Senzel), he is the only Reds player in the top 68, and they only have three of the top 100 (the Braves, by comparison, have eight, including two of the top 11).

Most metrics have the Reds winning less than 70 games in 2017, and those projections likely came when Phillips was still with the team.

According to reports since the trade, the Reds may have viewed Phillips as a problem, with his presence potentially blocking younger players–potential parts of the Reds future–from playing time, namely infielders Jose Peraza (ironically a former Braves farmhand), and Dilson Herrera.

This is further evident when considering the return for Phillips.  McKirahan is a former Rule 5 Draft pick, who missed half the 2015 season with a PED suspension, then all of 2016 with Tommy John Surgery.  The 27-year old was not expected to contend for the Opening Day Roster in Braves spring training, although with the Reds’ lack of bullpen depth, with a good spring he could potentially threaten to make the Cincinnati club.

Portuondo is a 29-year old Cuban defector, viewed more as “organizational depth” than a prospect after eight mediocre seasons in the Cuban league, and a 3.63 ERA across two minor-league levels in 2016, his first season in American pro baseball.

The fact the Reds are willing to pay $13 million of Phillips’ $14 million while he takes at-bats for another team in exchange for two players who may never make it to Cincinnati says a lot about the state of the franchise entering the 2017 season.

While the Reds continue their dive into the beginning phases of a potentially lengthy rebuilding process, further cementing their path with the trade of Phillips, the Braves are coming out of their own, and the acquisition of Phillips further equips them in their role as a sleeper team for the 2017 season.

 

*One interesting note for the Braves:  RHP Bartolo Colon and Brandon Phillips were once traded for each other in 2002, in a deal between the Montreal Expos and Cleveland Indians; the pair will now, nearing the ends of their careers, play together for the first time.

Column: The NFL Overtime Rule Needs Changing

For years, fans, players, and the media have all wondered when we could see a Super Bowl end in overtime.

Finally, in the game’s 51st edition, it happened.  Then, after just 3:58 elapsed on the game clock, it was over, without the Atlanta Falcons even possessing the football.

The New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 third-quarter deficit to score a game-tying touchdown and conversion with :57 left in regulation, leading to the historic extra period, played under the NFL’s overtime rules.

Those rules gave the Patriots an unfair advantage simply because they won the coin toss.  Unlike college and high school football, in the NFL the team that gets the ball first in overtime can win the game with a touchdown.

The league justifies this by saying both teams are guaranteed to possess the ball unless the first team scores a touchdown by driving all the way down the field after the extra session’s opening kickoff.

And yet, that’s exactly what the Patriots did, going 75 yards in eight plays to score just 3:58 into the overtime period, without the Falcons ever having a possession.

As a result of these rules, the team that wins the coin toss almost always takes the ball, with a few rare exceptions (including, once, the Patriots), because they know their chances to win are enhanced by possessing the ball first.

This doesn’t make sense.  While the rule is better than it used to be–until 2010 the first team to score in any way won, meaning the first team with possession could win with a field goal–it is still preposterous that one team or the other got an advantage in the Super Bowl based on whether a coin landed on heads or tails.

What I would like to see would not be a major overhaul:  the NFL could simply require the team that loses the coin toss to also get a possession.  To use last night’s game as an example, after the Patriots took a lead that would have likely been 35-28 after an extra point, the Falcons would have had a chance to match.  Had they not scored, the game would be over, or if they scored to tie, then the next team to score would win.

While tweeting my discontent with the overtime rule after the game’s conclusion, multiple users replied to me that the Falcons deserved to lose because they led by 25 late in the third quarter and didn’t score over the last quarter and a half.

But that doesn’t change the flaw in the overtime rule.  If the Falcons had won the coin toss and marched down the field and scored, wouldn’t it be right for the Patriots to get a possession after fighting so hard to tie the game and reach overtime?  (That scenario happened to the Packers, last season, as I mentioned here.)

Furthermore, in a hypothetical back-and-forth game that both teams play all 60 minutes at a high level, isn’t it only right that both teams get a possession, instead of one having the ability to win on the first possession because they won a coin toss?

This rule has been a problem for a long time, and I’ve been a critic of it for as long as I’ve been watching pro football.

Now, as football enters its offseason, if the occurrence of one team being robbed of a chance to possess the ball in a historic Super Bowl overtime doesn’t get the league to change the rule, nothing will.

The overtime problem in the NFL has gone on far too long, and now the rule gave one franchise a disadvantage as it tried to win its first Super Bowl title.

It’s long past time for a change.