by Julian Spivey
This week on his weekly Sirius XM NASCAR channel radio show 2014 NASCAR champion Kevin Harvick made waves when he accused 14-time Most Popular Driver winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. of stunting NASCAR’s growth by being the most popular driver, yet not its most successful.
Harvick said: “For me, I believe that Dale Jr. has had a big part in kind of stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans and this huge outreach of being able to reach different places that none of us have the possibility to reach, but he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. The growth in the sport has not reached the levels that it should have because our most popular driver has not been our most successful driver. He hasn’t been anywhere close to our most successful driver.”
Those comments have unsurprisingly irritated a lot of fans of the sport and were called “hurtful” by Earnhardt Jr.
Speaking to ESPN’s Bob Pockrass, Earnhardt said on Thursday (August 10): “I have an incredible amount of respect for him [Harvick]. I found some of those comments hurtful. I still respect him as a champion and ambassador for the sport. That’s just the way it is, I guess. I hate that’s how he feels.”
As for how his career has impacted the sport of NASCAR Earnhardt hoped he hadn’t negatively impacted it, while admitting that he hadn’t lived up to everyone’s expectations, but had his own.
“I put a lot into this sport, and I know that I might not have met everyone’s expectation, but I certainly exceeded my own and I’m super proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. I hope that I brought something to the table and left a good impact,” Earnhardt Jr. told ESPN.
Earnhardt’s response to Harvick’s commentary was as gracious and professional as you would expect from the driver who may be the nicest guy in the NASCAR garage, in addition to being its most popular.
Harvick’s commentary was kind of unexpected because you wouldn’t expect anyone to take a shot at the sport’s most popular driver amidst his farewell tour, but then again that’s who Harvick is – a jerk. He speaks his mind and that can often be a good thing, but let’s face it, what he did in this instance is sheer asshole-ish. It’s also incredibly dumb.
NASCAR is in trouble as a sport. There’s really no denying that – though the sport and even some of those who cover it for a living try to or at least hide the fact. But, there is no reason to believe Dale Earnhardt Jr. has had anything to do with stunting the growth of the sport. The number one culprit for stunting the sport is the way NASCAR runs things and can’t go a year without seriously changing how the sport operates. That’s too big to get into here though.
Another culprit likely has more to do with drivers like Harvick than ones like Earnhardt. Frankly, there are more unlikable drivers in the sport of NASCAR now (and have been for a while) than there are likable ones. Drivers with prickly attitudes like Harvick, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch can make it hard to like the sport, despite their talent on the track. Many fans would probably rather root for a nice guy who doesn’t win than a winner who acts like a jerk. But, when you’re seeing the jerks win way more than the nice guys it’s hard to continue watching. Many of the up-and-coming young drivers in the sport, however, do seem to be likable with good personalities like Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney giving hope for this trend to come to an end sooner rather than later.
Harvick may just have sour grapes. He’s a champion who thinks he’s deserving of more attention and fans than Earnhardt, who has never won a title and has 10 fewer Cup Series wins in one more season.
As for Earnhardt’s career-long disappointment. It’s a shame that many do and have always viewed him this way. If Earnhardt’s last name was Smith or Jones he wouldn’t receive this distinction. He only does because he’s the son of Dale Earnhardt and Dale Earnhardt was Babe Ruth. It’s not fair to act like Dale Jr. should’ve been a champion and legend on the track just because his father was, but it’s a standard he has been held to since day one and was magnified the day his father died in the Daytona 500 in 2001. Due to his father’s death, his fan base almost certainly more than doubled. He’s always had to live under his father’s shadow and he’s not his father. He’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is one helluva guy.
I’ve been watching this sport on a weekly basis since shortly after Dale Earnhardt died, during Dale Jr’s second full season. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a nicer presence in the sport and that includes my all-time favorite driver Jeff Gordon, who always seemed like a generally great guy. There’s just something incredibly approachable about Dale Jr. He’s the kind of guy you feel like you could honestly sit down, have a beer and play some Madden on the PS4 with and not feel out of place. On multiple occasions this season, which hasn’t been a fairytale farewell season for him, upon crashing out of the race I’ve seen him sign autographs for fans just after leaving the infield care center. This is something many drivers wouldn’t even consider doing (and I honestly don’t blame them). It feels like his fan base means as much to him as he has to them – which is something I don’t think you could say about Harvick and many others.
Anybody who has watched this sport over the years knows that Dale Jr.’s career hasn’t been what anybody other than himself probably envisioned. We’re all a part of that unfair comparison to his Hall of Fame father. That’s on us. It’s completely our fault. That has nothing to do with Dale Earnhardt Jr. All he can do is be who he is – and he’s been a damn good ambassador to the sport of NASCAR.
by Julian Spivey
Well, the ESPY Awards, ESPN’s annual fan-voted awards for the “best” in sports, has had a 25-year run. I think it’s time to blow it all up and start over again.
I don’t believe ESPN actually has any desire to blow up the ESPYs and start anew. From the looks of things, the network only wants to let go of the good stuff going on like respected reporters Jayson Stark, Tom Farrey, Ed Werder, John Clayton and others let go as part of a massive layoff a few months back.
But, the ESPYs have lost their meaningfulness, if the awards ever had any to begin with – and that’s because it’s voted upon by the fans. I know, I know it sounds too high and mighty of me to bash the popular vote. It’s just that allowing novices to vote for awards essentially turns them into a popularity contest and popularity contests don’t always lead to deserved winners. In the case of the ESPYs it almost always leads to NBA or NFL players or teams winning the big awards.
The asininity of the ESPYs being fan voted popped up on numerous occasions on Wednesday night during the show’s milestone 25th anniversary. The most egregious of the winners this year was the Golden State Warriors, fresh off their second NBA championship in three years, winning Outstanding Team over baseball’s Chicago Cubs, who snapped their 108-year championship drought by winning the World Series last November. The Warriors are a team that I would’ve agreed with almost any other year, but you can’t make any sense of this team – one that was expected to dominate and win the championship from the start – winning this honor over a Cubs team that did the unthinkable. It’s interesting to note that no baseball team has won this honor since the 2005 Boston Red Sox, and their drought wasn’t nearly as long.
The anti-baseball bias of the ESPY awards, thus the fans doing the voting, showed up earlier in the night when Super Bowl LI between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons won the ESPY for Best Game over Game 7 of the World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, the teams with the two longest title droughts in all of sports, which went to extra innings before being won in dramatic fashion by the Cubs. It was a game that many baseball experts and fans alike called the “greatest baseball game of all-time” (and this sport has been around since 1876), but it was beaten out by a Super Bowl, that while amazing, was in all actuality really only great from the fourth quarter on.
Speaking of the Super Bowl, I understand that Tom Brady is likely the most hated player in the NFL (which doesn’t suit well for a fan-voted award), but him not winning Best Championship Performance for a comeback that we will probably never see the likes of again to win his fifth Super Bowl is unbelievable. Kevin Durant’s performance in the NBA Finals would’ve been worthy most years, but Brady’s performance was potentially the greatest in NFL history, and he did it in just over a quarter.
There were other crazy winners during the night, but these three really explain the stupidity of what the ESPYs have become – and quite possibly may have always been. I have had similar thoughts after the last few years, as well, but none of the past winners have been quite this egregious.
So, what should be done about this?
For any awards to really mean squat there must be a selection process for winners that includes experts in the field. You have academies choose winners of entertainment awards like the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys. The medium of sports really needs to find a way to create such a body for the awards to ever really mean anything.
Because the awards are owned by ESPN the best way for such a voting body to be created would be to allow the professionals who work for the network to choose the winners, if they haven’t already fired all the best professionals they have. Otherwise it would just be the ESPY Awards presented by Stephen A. Smith. You might think fans wouldn’t be interested in such awards if their voice is taken out, but they still watch the Oscars, Emmys and Grammys, don’t they? I believe sports fans want a credible sports awards show that represents the best in sports – and all sports. The ESPYs aren’t that. It’s time to blow it up.
by Julian Spivey
The milestone 25th annual ESPY Awards will be broadcast on ABC on Wednesday, July 12 at 7 p.m. and will be hosted by NFL legend Peyton Manning, who surprisingly never won the ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year despite his popularity (the awards are fan voted) and having won nine other ESPYs.
Despite his legendary career, Manning doesn’t make this list of the 5 Greatest Athletes to not win an ESPY Award for Male Athlete of the Year over the last quarter-century.
It’s somewhat amazing to me that none of these athletes on this list have ever won the award, but let’s face it fan voted awards are basically a popularity contest (thus kind of bogus), making this honor less prestigious than say Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, an honor two of the athletes on this list have won.
5. Miguel Cabrera
You could certainly argue that Miguel Cabrera isn’t the greatest baseball player to never win the ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year (Albert Pujols has never won either), but he’s on this list for one specific reason – he became the first baseball player in almost a half century to hit for the Triple Crown (one of the greatest feats in all of sports) and he didn’t win Athlete of the Year (the honor went to LeBron James). That’s the most egregious Male Athlete of the Year ESPY snub I’ve ever seen. Cabrera has won two ESPYs for MLB Player of the Year (2013, 2014) and has been nominated twice for Male Athlete of the Year. Sadly, baseball doesn’t seem popular enough to win this honor anymore with no baseball player winning the award since a steroid-aided Mark McGwire did in 1999.
4. Roger Federer
Roger Federer is arguably the greatest tennis player of all-time with a record 18 men’s Grand Slam titles and previously holding the No. 1 spot in the ATP rankings for a record 302 weeks. However, surprisingly Federer has never even been nominated for ESPY’s Male Athlete of the Year (his career rival Rafael Nadal was once in 2011), which is truly a sports awards travesty. Federer, however, has won more overall ESPY’s than anyone else appearing on this list with seven in total, most of those coming for Male Tennis Player of the Year. Federer not being from America likely negatively affected his chances. NBA’s Dirk Nowitzki (from Germany) in 2011 is the only non-American to ever win this award. No tennis player has ever won the award. Federer is nominated for three more ESPYs this year: Best Male Tennis Player, Best Comeback Athlete and Best Game.
3. Tim Duncan
Just about every NBA expert ever has Tim Duncan ranked as one of the 10 greatest NBA players of all-time, yet Duncan never took home the ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year despite basketball being a sport that has won this award seven different times among five different players (including the last six years consecutively). Duncan likely didn’t have the personality factor to win a fan-voted award, but his stats and championship stature should’ve stood for themselves. The five-time champion, two-time MVP and three-time NBA Finals MVP was nominated for the honor twice and won three overall ESPY awards, two for Best NBA Player and one for Best Male College Athlete.
2. Jimmie Johnson
It’s not too surprising that record seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has never won the ESPY for Male Athlete of the Year with auto racing not exactly being one of the most popular or most watched sports in this country, but it may surprise you to know he’s been nominated for the honor on three different occasions, which is more than any of the other athletes on this list. No auto racer has ever won the honor. Johnson has taken home four ESPY Awards for Best Driver throughout his career. Johnson is once again nominated for Best Driver this year.
1. Tom Brady
For many years Tom Brady has likely been the most hated player in the NFL so it’s not wholly surprising that he’s never won a fan-voted award, despite possibly being the greatest quarterback (surely America’s favorite star-making position in sports, though Steve Young and Drew Brees are the only two to ever win) to ever play in the NFL. Brady has been nominated for the honor twice and has won two ESPYs overall, once for Best NFL Player and once for Best Breakthrough Athlete, which is a travesty (but, again these are fan-voted and he’s pretty disliked among NFL fans). Brady is nominated for two awards this year for Best NFL Player and Best Championship Performance (which he should win). Despite the NFL clearly being America’s most-watched and favorite sport only three times has a football player won this honor (Young, Brees and LaDanian Tomlinson).
by Julian Spivey
The 2017 NBA Finals begin tonight on ABC at 8 p.m. and for the first time in NBA history we have a trilogy – the same two teams (Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers) matching up for a third consecutive year. Both teams have taken a title over the last two years, so to borrow terminology from baseball, this year’s Finals is essentially the rubber match.
I’ll fully admit that I hope the Warriors win the championship. The team has won me over the last few seasons with their stellar team play and exciting long ball style and I’ve become quite the fan of many of its players – most notably Stephen Curry, who might be the most likable athlete in any sport right now. I also feel bad that the greatest season in NBA history was destroyed last year when they fell to the Cavaliers in seven games and that the team is somewhat owed one.
But, this isn’t about which team I want to win the NBA Finals, but rather the team that I believe will win. And, despite being statistically considered heavy underdogs when you look at things like ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) which only gives them a seven percent chance at beating the Warriors I truly believe the Cavaliers are going to go back-to-back.
The Warriors are probably a better team this year than they were last year, despite the regular season record not being as good. That’s owed to one thing – signing Kevin Durant as a free agent last offseason. This is part of the reason they’re so heavily favored to win the title. The Warriors are also playing the best basketball right now that they’ve played all season winning 24 of their last 25 games and sweeping through the entirety of the Western Conference playoffs, though they did get a huge boost in the Western Conference Finals with Kawhi Leonard’s devastating injury for the San Antonio Spurs. But, all the pressure is on the Warriors. Not only are they given a 93 percent chance at victory, but they’re trying to avenge losing in such dramatic fashion last year, Durant has a mountain of pressure on him (although he’s going to get blasted by fans and even some media win or lose) and team leader Curry has pressure on him because he didn’t play well during last year’s Finals.
The Cavaliers virtually have no pressure on them. They are supposed to lose. It seems like a great advantage for them as a veteran team to be considered such underdogs. They have their sights set on disproving everybody – or really just the statistic nerds and their computers – because actual fans and analysts believe this will be a much closer series than the BPI suggests.
The biggest reason why I’m predicting the Cavaliers to win back-to-back NBA titles is LeBron James. He’s still the greatest basketball player on Earth and he’s playing like a man determined right now. There’s no athlete in any sport I’d want on my team when he’s in full determination mode. It’s almost like he can will himself and his teammates to do whatever it takes to win the big game and we saw that last year when the Cavaliers were down 3-1 in the Finals before becoming the first team in league history to win three in a row to clinch the title. The Cavaliers winning streak last year came right after Warriors power forward Draymond Green referred to James as a “bitch” to his face. I knew that exact moment the Cavs weren’t going to lose that series. I don’t think James has forgotten about that at all.
The Warriors may have the most best players on the court at any one time, but I can’t bring myself to pick against LeBron James.
by Julian Spivey
We’ve all seen the horrifying image of “The Falling Man.” The World Press Photo Award winner taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew of an unidentified man leaping to his death from one of the World Trade Center towers on the morning of 9/11. It’s one of the most controversial photos in journalism history as it shows a man plummeting to his death. But, it’s also one of the most important photos in journalism history because it gave the tragedy of 9/11 a more human feel. Sure, we knew people were dying in the World Trade Center buildings, but the image of someone who’d rather die from leaping from one of the building’s upper floors than die in an inferno showed the event as horrific as it truly was. Recording that type of history is important for us to get the full extent of it.
This is an image I remember seeing a couple of times in textbooks during my college days minoring in print journalism in my News Editing and Media Ethics courses. The topic was about journalism ethics and what should and shouldn’t be shown in print. Basically, it’s a photographer’s job to capture an event – even if it’s a horrible or graphic one – and then it’s up for the editor of the publication to decide whether to run the image. That decision is one I respect and whenever an image is published that people believe shouldn’t be I’m almost always going to side with the media, because I have the schooling and knowledge based on my minor degree to know and understand why these images have been chosen for the public to see.
This controversy arose during the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway on Saturday night, May 13, when a terrifying three-car accident involving Joey Logano, Danica Patrick and Aric Almirola resulted in Almirola having to be cut from his car and removed via a backboard and stretcher. He was conscious and alert, but photos captured by the media, which could be seen on the live Fox Sports 1 television broadcast standing on the wall outside of the track’s catchfence taking photos, showed the driver to be in obvious pain while being removed from his car. Almirola would be airlifted to a local hospital where as of last report was in stable condition, but was to be held overnight for further observation. These images immediately drew the ire of many on social media sites like Twitter with people stating they believe the act of taking photos of this situation to be disrespectful and inappropriate.
Why is it important for images of Almirola to be taken and published?
It’s a simple answer really – because it’s something that happened. Almirola’s stature as an athlete involved in a sporting event makes his accident, his unusual (for these days in NASCAR) removal from his vehicle and his injury status news worthy. It’s the same reason that the accident led the late night ESPN “SportsCenter” broadcast. If Almirola had been killed in the accident you wouldn’t have seen images from the incident. I’m confident of that. Though, it would’ve been at an editor’s discretion and photos like this from the horrific 1955 Le Mans tragedy have been published before. The response from fans irritated by the media doing its job in showing the incident was dumbfounding to me. I couldn’t help but wonder if these fans dislike it when images of football players being removed from games, in obvious pain, after tearing up their knees or receiving helmet-to-helmet hits. That may be the case, but if so it’s not something I’ve ever seen or heard about. Nor did I see much outcry when NBA star Paul George was removed from the court via stretcher after a gruesome broken leg playing for Team USA. I wonder why it’s seemingly different for the sport of NASCAR?
I’m not, by any means, telling people that they can’t take issue with a photograph being published. I just ask that these people realize why these images are published and that in the profession of journalism it would actually more likely be considered more unethical to not publish something news worthy than to skip it for fears of disrespecting the injured. We all have jobs to do and had these photographers at the NASCAR race not opted to photograph Almirola being extricated from his torn-up racecar on Saturday night they likely would’ve received an earful from their editors and might have even been replaced.
by Julian Spivey
Nearly two weeks into the 2017 World Baseball Classic the tournament has been thrilling as hell with numerous close games and great play from some of the greatest players in the world. However, despite the terrific play on the field the continued feeling of “the World Baseball Classic just doesn’t interest American baseball fans” has been bandied about quite a bit online, especially social media.
Simply put, it’s hard for me to believe one could be a great baseball fan and not have thoroughly enjoyed the on-field product of the pool play during the tournament’s first two weeks. After all, it’s baseball that’s played at a high level and means something at a time where the only other baseball is Spring Training to prepare for the Major League Baseball season.
But, even though the actual games have been great I know the reason why many American fans don’t care so much for the tournament – it’s because the United States doesn’t have a chance at winning and they never have won the tournament. Americans don’t tend to enjoy things dominated by non-Americans. Hence many act like the World Baseball Classic is a waste of time or a joke, when in all actuality, it’s a great tournament.
Who should we blame for the American fan’s lack of interest in the WBC? Should it be the fans themselves? I think that’s a bit too easy and wrongheaded. I think the actual blame comes down to the American players. I salute players like Adam Jones, Buster Posey, Daniel Murphy, Andrew McCutchen and others who suit up to represent their country, but the fact is many of the best American players aren’t in the tournament.
Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, Josh Donaldson, Mookie Betts are all considered among the top 10 players in the game per MLB Network’s recent rankings. Yet, none of these players are on Team USA. More importantly for the roster is it doesn’t feature Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, Max Scherzer or really any starting pitcher that puts the fear of God into the opposing hitters. So, the United States ends up with Marcus Stroman giving up six consecutive hits and four runs before a single out is even recorded against a Puerto Rican team filled with All Stars.
Jose Altuve, Miguel Cabrera and Manny Machado are also listed in the MLB’s 10 best players by the MLB Network, all three of those players suited up for their respective countries. As did Robinson Cano, Adrian Gonzalez, Felix Hernandez, Adrian Beltre, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and more. The lineups from other teams in the event, particularly from South American or Caribbean countries are a who’s who from those nations. And, because of this the WBC isn’t the Olympic basketball tournament where the Americans could show up 12 of their B-level stars and still take gold. They need their best to compete and win.
This is proof that players from other countries simply care more about representing their homelands more than players from America, who are either too worried about injury, their money or other reasons to suit it up for the red, white and blue. This lack of enthusiasm for performing for their country leaves American baseball fans less than excited. Many realize pitchers like Stroman, Tanner Roark and Drew Smyly, who likely isn’t even one of the 30 best American starting pitchers in the MLB, aren’t going to win multiple games against lineups like the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico so they don’t tune into these games, many of which aren’t ending until 1 or 2 a.m. in their time zones despite being played mostly in America (another key issue the WBC needs to fix).
When the American superstars like Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout start giving a damn about representing their country then their country will be competitive enough to compete and then the American fans the tournament really needs to thrive will show up.
by Julian Spivey
16. Austin Dillon
Austin Dillon pointed his way into the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup playoffs last season with a little more consistency than he’d shown over the first two seasons of his career, but entering his fourth full-time season he’s failed to enter Victory Lane even once. I’ll give him the advantage this year, but this final playoff spot could just as easily go to AJ Allmendinger, Clint Bowyer, Jamie McMurray or Ryan Newman.
15. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney entering his sophomore season feels like a driver on the cusp of his first career Monster Energy Cup win. His rookie season was somewhat disappointing with three top fives, nine top 10s, finishing 20th in points and only leading 11 laps all season, but his Wood Brothers Racing alliance with Penske Racing has me thinking he’ll crack the top 16 this season.
14. Erik Jones
20-year old Erik Jones is expected to be the next big thing in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and enters his rookie season in a new second car team for Furniture Row Racing with a Joe Gibbs Racing alliance. Jones has won nine races over the last two seasons in the Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series and it wouldn’t be shocking for him to pull a victory out of his rookie year.
13. Daniel Suarez
About one month ago, Daniel Suarez wasn’t even going to compete in the Monster Energy Cup Series, but when Carl Edwards abruptly retired in January, Joe Gibbs Racing turned to the 2016 Xfinity Series champion to take his place. The No. 19 team made the championship race last season and Suarez has enough talent to become the first Mexican born driver to make the NASCAR playoffs.
12. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson finally entered Victory Lane last season in his third full year and has been getting better year after year. You should probably expect the wins to come easier for Larson now, even though he drives for Chip Ganassi Racing, one of the second-tier teams in the sport.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a big question mark for the 2017 season having missed the second half of 2016 with issues stemming from a bad concussion. Hendrick Motorsports is one of the top two teams in the sport and prior to his injury Earnhardt and his No. 88 Chevrolet team were very consistent. He should be a lock to win at least one race and qualify for the playoffs.
10. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch is consistent enough to average at least one win a season, which locks you into the NASCAR playoffs these days. However, he doesn’t win enough to be considered a major championship threat. The 2004 series champion hasn’t won more than two races in a season in more than a decade.
9. Chase Elliott
It surprised many that Chase Elliott didn’t win a race in his rookie season last year, but he still pointed his way into the playoffs on his way to taking home Rookie of the Year honors. He had some close calls with victory last year and driving for Hendrick Motorsports makes him a threat on a weekly basis. There’s no way he goes winless in 2017.
8. Martin Truex Jr.
Martin Truex Jr. was the biggest surprise of the 2016 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup season going from a disappointing veteran to championship contender in the span of one year. Truex won four races in 2016, which was more than he’d won in the first 10 years of his career combined. You should expect him back in Victory Lane in 2017, but probably not as many times as he appeared their last season.
7. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is no doubt one of the best active drivers in NASCAR to not yet win a championship, but it’s kind of hard to do that when you’re probably only the third best driver on your own team. Hamlin was the very first driver to clinch a playoff spot last season by winning the Daytona 500 and is good for two to three wins a season.
6. Matt Kenseth
At 44 years old Matt Kenseth is now the elder statesman of the Monster Energy Cup Series, but he doesn’t seem to be slowing down any. Competing for the series’ top team of late, Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has won seven races over the last two seasons and finished fifth in the point standings last year.
5. Brad Keselowski
Brad Keselowski had four wins last season and looked like one of the favorites for the 2016 championship before faltering in the playoffs. The 2012 Cup Series champion is just about a lock year-in-and-year-out to make the playoffs. Keselowski and Joey Logano teamed together at Penske Racing is probably the most fearsome duo in the sport.
4. Joey Logano
With 14 wins over the last three seasons I don’t believe there’s any doubt that Joey Logano is the best active driver in the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series who has yet to win a championship. You should probably expect Logano to win anywhere between three and six races this season and he should be a title contender if he can just find a little more consistency come playoff time.
3. Kevin Harvick
2014 champion Kevin Harvick is a top 10 machine who has averaged 27.5 top 10s over the last two seasons (36 race seasons). He’s a threat in every single race he competes in and averages three-to-five wins per season. Stewart-Haas Racing has made the switch from Chevrolet to Ford this season, but that likely won’t hinder Harvick any.
2. Kyle Busch
It’s weird that a four win season where you finished third in the championship standings could feel underwhelming, but that was sort of how the 2016 season felt for Kyle Busch after winning the championship in 2015. Busch failed to win a race over the last 16 races of the 2016 season, including the entirety of the playoffs. He’s quite possibly the most talented driver in the sport and must be considered a threat to win every season.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh NASCAR premier series championship last season and for much of the season the media was talking about how it was one of his worst seasons ever. That’s how good the guy is. Johnson and his No. 48 team turned it on during the playoffs and won the title. I believe Johnson has to be considered the title favorite year-in-and-year-out.
by Julian Spivey
When I was 15 years old one of my sports heroes Tom Glavine decided to leave the Atlanta Braves via free agency for the rival New York Mets. The Mets offered Glavine extra years on his contract, so he signed with them for four years and $42.5 million. I was disappointed one of my favorite players wouldn’t be on my favorite team anymore, but I never for one second hated Glavine … and I was just a kid.
So, when I saw grown adults booing Kevin Durant relentlessly and calling him disparaging names like “cupcake” and “KowarD” (intentionally misspelled to emphasize the KD) on Saturday night (Feb. 11) on his first visit to Oklahoma City (where he spent nine of his first 10 seasons after the franchise relocated from Seattle) since signing via free agency with the Golden State Warriors during the offseason I was disappointed. I wasn’t surprised, but I was disappointed in a fan-base that had experienced so much greatness and kindness, both on and off the court, from Durant for a decade.
After all, Durant made the Oklahoma City Thunder what it was for the last decade. With him the franchise was consistently one of the three best teams in the Western Conference. Without him they would essentially have been nothing. And, you can claim they still would’ve had Russell Westbrook, who’s averaging a triple-double this season and working on his first MVP award, and you would’ve been right – but they’re still nothing. They are a seventh-place team, after all, in a conference that pretty much only has seven good teams. And, it’s not just this season. A few seasons ago when Durant was injured and missed most of the season the Thunder failed to make the playoffs. Essentially the same team last year with Durant healthy finished third in the Western Conference, made the Western Conference Finals and nearly made the NBA Finals, but collapsed and fell to the Warriors. Now, without Durant again, the team has fallen back to the bottom four of the conference playoff standings. It’s not a coincidence.
I understand that it looks bad to fans of the Thunder for Durant to leave the team after coming so close to a title on a few different occasions for a team that already included three All-Stars and are almost a lock for the NBA Finals for a third consecutive season, especially when Westbrook signed a contract extension to stay in OKC one season before being set to become a free agent.
But, Durant did what was best for him and that’s all anyone should expect from someone in their profession, and that’s what basketball is for Durant. Fans like to think sports are more than jobs for athletes. They like to think it’s a family that they as fans are included in. That athletes should remain loyal to their teams and fan-bases. But, that’s an unrealistic belief. All of us have opportunities in our lives to either move up in our fields or search out for better jobs and paydays elsewhere. When these better or higher paying jobs are open to us we jump at them. But, fans don’t believe the same for their favorite athletes. They throw around the word “loyalty,” but when it comes down to it we all – athletes included – must do what’s best for ourselves and our actual families.
After a decade off coming up just short of a championship Durant wanted a little something more and the Warriors and their stacked roster gave him that opportunity. You could actually argue passing that up would have been the wrong decision for him.
What was even more disappointing and frankly embarrassing to see from Thunder fans booing Durant on Saturday night was that he gave so much to the Oklahoma City community. He has donated basketball courts to schools in the area and areas throughout the country and even world so kids growing up in bad neighborhoods can have an outlet, like he did growing up, to keep them out of trouble. Durant also donated $1 million to the American Red Cross after the devastating tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area in 2013 and this generous donation inspired both the Thunder franchise and his sponsor Nike to match the donation.
Durant gave so much to the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, fan-base and community by essentially building a franchise in a city that had never had a professional sport before he came to town. He deserved cheers and praise upon his return – even if it was while wearing another uniform. It’s truly unfortunate the Thunder fan-base wasn’t adult enough to understand all Durant has given them. Hopefully one day they will.
by Julian Spivey
Congratulations sports fans, you just witnessed the greatest year in the history of sports … and it may not even be close.
It all started in April of last year. North Carolina and Villanova met in the NCAA Men’s College Basketball championship and the game was one for the ages and featured possibly the greatest last 10 seconds in the history of the game. Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige hit an unbelievable three-pointer to tie the game at 74 with 4.7 seconds remaining on the clock. It seemed the game was certain for overtime. But, Villanova didn’t panic. They called timeout, coach Jay Wright drew up a play, the Wildcats inbounded the ball from the far end of the court, point guard Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled the ball up the court to the three-point arc, sort of flipped the ball back to an unbelievably wide open Kris Jenkins who nailed a long three as time expired for the championship. It wasn’t the first time a college basketball championship ended on a buzzer beater, but considering Paige’s shot to tie it up seconds before it led to a “can you believe what you just saw?” finish that likely made it the greatest college basketball championship finish ever.
The Golden State Warriors were the greatest team in NBA history with a record-breaking 73-9 regular season. All the team needed was a championship, their second in a row, to wrap up the “greatest team ever” tagline. They were almost stunned by the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals going down 3-1 before coming back to win three games in a row to make the NBA Finals. That seemed like their biggest threat. In the Finals, the Warriors faced the Cleveland Cavaliers who they had beaten the year before, though that Cavs team was severely injured. Golden State would take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, one that no team had ever overcome to win the championship before. It was a virtual lock for the Warriors. Then they collapsed. The Cavaliers dominated the next two games to tie the series up at three games apiece setting up a final game 7 at Golden State. The game was close and went down to the final seconds, but ultimately LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, who’s three game stretches are among the greatest championship performances ever, were too much for the Warriors. Irving hit a clutch game-winner with under a minute remaining in the game and MVP Steph Curry right in his face. James finally had the championship in Cleveland he longed for and the greatest season in NBA history was instantly destroyed.
The Chicago Cubs knew futility like no team in the history of sports. The franchise’s 100-plus year championship drought was the longest in sports, by far. But, 2016 had a feeling that it all was going to change. The Cubs were the best team in Major League Baseball throughout the entire season, but we know the playoffs can be a different beast. The Cubs looked downright horrible against the pitching of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, and were written off by many, before coming back to win the series. It seemed the team was destined to finally snap the Curse of the Billy Goat. The World Series featured the two teams with the longest championship droughts in sports – the Cubs and the Cleveland Indians. Just knowing one streak was going to be snapped already made this the most interesting World Series matchup potentially ever. But, it’s unlikely anybody knew just how epic the series was going to be. The Cubs, once again, looked lost and the Indians took a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. Teams had come back from that deficit before, but the chances were slim. However, the Cubs went to work and forced a seventh game in dramatic fashion. In game 7 it looked like the Cubs were going to complete the unthinkable and run away with the series. Then in the eighth inning it looked like the Curse had reared its ugly head in a major way. The Indians made a stunning comeback off the Cubs bullpen, including fireball throwing closer Aroldis Chapman that culminated in light hitting outfielder Rajai Davis hitting a game-tying home run. Game 7, of the most interesting World Series ever, entered extra innings with the home-team Indians having the advantage. Then the sky opened up and the game had about a 40-minute rain delay. During that delay, Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward called a team meeting to get the young team together and let them know the game wasn’t over yet and to forget about the late inning collapse. When the delay was lifted, the Cubs came out of the clubhouse swinging and Ben Zobrist put them in the lead with a double. Relievers Carl Edwards Jr. and Mike Montgomery, though shaky, were able to hold onto the lead and the Curse was finally broken in a game many baseball writers were instantly calling the greatest game in baseball history.
The NASCAR championship is one that is unfortunately manufactured to be as exciting as possible, which kind of has the opposite effect on the title race. The sport takes the top four drivers after a nine-week playoff and puts them on equal footing for the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the highest finisher winning the championship. In the short history of this playoff format the champion of the sport has always won the title race. That didn’t change this past season, but the way it came down to the very end made for an exciting and historic finish. Six-time champion Jimmie Johnson was trying to tie NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for the most championships in NASCAR history. He took the championship lead on a late race caution when leader and likely champion Carl Edwards crashed out of the race trying to block for the lead. Johnson would have to drive a perfect final two laps on a restart to win the record-tying championship and he did just that.
The college football championship kind of had a less than exciting feel to it than fans had hoped for. The matchup between Alabama and Clemson was a repeat of the year before and many expected that the Crimson Tide could not be beaten. Early in the game it sure felt that way as Alabama had a solid 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter. Tigers star quarterback Deshaun Watson then got his offense going and a shootout between the two teams commenced over the final quarter and a half of the game. Alabama took a three-point lead with about two minutes remaining on the clock. The Tigers offense got to work and with six seconds remaining Watson essentially threw a walk-off touchdown pass to receiver Hunter Renfrow sealing the greatest college football championship game in the minds of many.
What happened last night in Super Bowl LI was perhaps the most unbelievable moment of them all. The New England Patriots trailed by 25 points at one point in the third quarter. There was a moment in the game, per ESPN, when the Falcons had a 99.6 percent chance at winning the first Super Bowl in franchise history. No team had ever come back to win a Super Bowl by more than 10 points. It didn’t just seem insurmountable that the Patriots could win the game it literally felt impossible. Then in the fourth quarter the greatest QB in NFL history Tom Brady and the greatest coach in NFL history Bill Belichick worked some magic. Oh yeah, and the Atlanta Falcons choked the biggest choke in the history of sports – not just the Super Bowl, not just the NFL, but sports. Brady just ate up the Falcons defense, which had sacked him five times in the game, in the fourth quarter on his way to a Super Bowl record 466 passing yards, which included an incredible and unbelievable reception by receiver Julian Edelman off the hands and then feet of a Falcons defender, which may go down as the greatest catch in NFL history. The Patriots tied the game about a minute before regulation ended, won the coin toss to begin overtime (the first overtime in Super Bowl history) and Brady led his team down the field emphatically culminating in a sudden death game-winning touchdown run by running back James White, who had three touchdowns during the Pats record-setting comeback. It was a comeback that seemingly set up Brady, Belichick and the Patriots to be deemed the greatest of all-time in their categories. It also gave many the moment they were looking forward to when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was forced to congratulate a team he, in the minds of many, unfairly tried to keep from winning.
Essentially since April of last year every single major championship game or event came down to the very last play or moments of the game before deciding a victor. It doesn’t get any better than that for sports fans. We’ll likely never see it again.
by Julian Spivey
When the NBA All-Star starters were announced on Thursday, Jan. 19 there was immediate controversy over the fact that Oklahoma City Thunder point guard and likely MVP front-runner Russell Westbrook wasn’t voted in as a starting guard for the Western Conference.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry were voted in as starters, with many believing Westbrook should’ve been in Curry’s place.
There’s really no doubt that Westbrook should be in the West’s starting lineup for next month’s All-Star Game as he’s averaging a triple-double for the season thus far. However, his snub doesn’t mean the All-Star voting system is broken, as many critics have said in the last few days it is.
In fact, the All-Star voting system has never been better.
People are complaining about the voting system this year, which is a weighted system where the fans, media and players all have a say in the All-Star Game starters. The fans account for 50 percent of the vote, the media 25 percent and the players 25 percent. But, never in the history of the game would Westbrook have been voted in. In previous years, the starters were selected solely by the fan vote. The fans had Curry and Harden as the top two guards. In fact, this weighted system that debuted this year kept the Western Conference starting lineup from including Warriors center Zaza Pachulia from being selected as a starter. Surely, we can all agree that alone makes this a better and fairer system?
Westbrook’s omission from the Western Conference starting lineup came down to a tiebreaker in the new voting system. Westbrook was ranked No. 1 in the media and players ranks, but No. 3 in the fan rank. Curry was voted No. 1 in the fan rank, but No. 3 in both the media and player ranks. Harden was voted No. 2 in all three ranks. The weighted score for all three players was 2.0. The method for deciding a tie goes to the fan voting, which had Curry and Harden with more votes than Westbrook. This tiebreaker system also resulted in Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan making the Eastern Conference lineup over Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas.
Essentially Westbrook being less likable than Curry and Harden has kept him from a starting All-Star berth he deserves, which has bugged many fans (though obviously if it bugged them enough he’d be starting in the first place) and those in the media. But, here’s why the tiebreaker is fine by me. All-Star Games are great honors for athletes, but they essentially were created in every sport for the fans. This is why fan voting for All-Star lineups exists in every professional team sport. If the fans would rather see Curry start than Westbrook that’s what they should get.
The NBA’s new All-Star voting system is easily the best system I’ve ever seen for selecting lineups, because it gives the fans a large say, but also allows for things like the entire country of Georgia voting non-stop for Pachulia to be eliminated by the media and players using more objectivity. It is unfortunate that the league’s best player this season didn’t receive an honor he deserved, but he’ll still be an All-Star and really that’s what matters in the long run.