by Julian Spivey
James Hicks wasn’t my grandfather, but he may as well have been. I knew him better than two of my grandfathers and liked him a helluva lot more than my other one. I honestly don’t know what James did for his career, he was done with that by the time I knew him. The only things I did know were he was a soldier and a survivor shot down in a plane by Nazis in World War II and he was a bootlegger, and that one may not even be true. James probably told a lot of stories that weren’t true. It helped to build a myth. He always seemed like a man’s man, even though he was old, skinny and always seemingly frail when I knew him. He could have been John Wayne for all I knew when he was younger, except for that fact he actually served.
Even though he was closer with my brothers, whom he babysat when they were little, I always had a few things in common with James. We were both fans of NASCAR, country music and Western movies. It was NASCAR where we truly bonded. If he indeed had been a bootlegger it explains his love for the sport that grew out of illegally running whiskey across the South in hotrods fast enough to outrun the local authorities. He was a Dale Earnhardt fan. That wasn’t a surprise at all. Of course, James Hicks would like a driver known as “The Intimidator,” who could shake a driver in front of him so much he’d have to think about pulling over to let him pass or else fear being wrecked. I started watching NASCAR full-time shortly after Earnhardt’s death on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, though I’d caught races from time-to-time previously. My favorite driver quickly became Jeff Gordon, the best driver of that era. Gordon was the driver Earnhardt fans loved to hate. Like many fans within Earnhardt Nation, James’ allegiances on the racetrack quickly shifted to Dale’s young son Dale Earnhardt Jr. The two drivers shared a name and a passion for racecar driving, but honestly not much else. But, the name and fact he was a racecar driver was enough for James and millions of others.
Him being an Earnhardt fan and myself being a Gordon fan meant we had us a little rivalry between us. This 70-something man and a teenager poking fun at each over about car racers driving around in ovals. Around this time there was an up-and-comer in the Busch Series, kind of NASCAR’s minor leagues, named Martin Truex Jr., who competed for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Chance 2 Motorsports team. Truex Jr. would win the Busch Series championship with this team in back-to-back seasons in 2004 and 2005 and looked like he’d be a future star in the Cup Series. Being talented and affiliated with Dale Jr., Truex quickly became a favorite of James’ too.
Truex Jr. would soon become Dale Jr.’s teammate at Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the team Dale Sr. had created. He would win his first race in his second season in the Cup Series at Dover. But, the following years would be a struggle for both Dale Jr. and Truex Jr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. would soon move to Hendrick Motorsports, where he’d finish his career a decade later. He would struggle off and on during this decade, but the highlights included his second Daytona 500 victory in 2014. Truex Jr. would go to Michael Waltrip Racing where he would continue to struggle. He would only win one race at MWR and after eight full seasons in the sport’s premier series had only two wins. He had been a major disappointment and it looked like his career could potentially over.
James and I would enjoy giving each other hell over NASCAR during the brief period he lived in Arkansas, but he would eventually move back to Florida and I probably only saw him a few more times during his life. He died in either 2011 or 2012, according to my brother Jon. At that point neither of his favorite drivers had won a race in multiple seasons. I don’t even know if James kept up with NASCAR in his final years. The sport had changed so much, and many longtime fans had found it to be too much and had left it behind. Even some younger fans like myself had found it hard to adapt. I wonder what James would think of the current sport with its stage racing, 16-team playoffs, elimination rounds and a winner-take-all championship race that could see a dominant driver lose the championship to someone much less worthy?
After the 2013 season Truex Jr. would find his way to the single car team of Furniture Row Racing, which had had little success prior to him joining the team. But, they soon would be affiliated with the powerhouse of Joe Gibbs Racing and had hoped things would turn around. I’m not sure anybody knew just how much things would indeed change.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. would have his two best seasons in a decade in 2014 and 2015 combining for seven victories. It seemed like he was having the most fun of his career. Unfortunately, the next season concussion issues would derail it. He wouldn’t win again.
Truex Jr.’s career which seemed like it could’ve been over had gotten a rebirth at Furniture Row. He would win his third career race in 2015 and things had certainly begun to click for that team and for Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn. They would pretty much dominate the Cup Series the next two seasons. In 2016, Truex would win four races. His team dominated the mile-and-a-half tracks that frequented the NASCAR schedule. In 2017, the team was the most consistent all-season long. Truex and Furniture Row Racing really hit it off with the new points format with bonus points for winning race stages. He would enter the final race on Sunday with a series high seven wins.
My favorite driver Jeff Gordon retired in 2015. He left the sport as one of its five greatest of all-time and four championships. I think James would have told me, “the kid done good,” had he been around. He would’ve certainly thrown in, “but not as good as Dale.” Earnhardt Sr. having one three more championships than Gordon. I, of course, would’ve responded with how the changes to NASCAR’s point standings had cost Gordon potentially three more titles.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had announced his retirement from NASCAR about a quarter into the season and it kind of surprised people, but then again, the concussions had taken a toll on his life and he wanted to enjoy a life after racing with his new bride Amy. The two are set to have a daughter next May. Still it would be a huge hit to NASCAR to have its most popular driver retire right on the heels of champions Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Earnhardt Jr. had never won the championship in the Cup Series many expected from him, but his resume of 26 Cup wins and two Daytona 500s isn’t shabby. More importantly his humble attitude and graciousness meant more to the sport than a championship could’ve. Dale Jr. had gone from a kid when James and I had our little rivalry to a man that I grew to respect and root for on a weekly basis. There simply hasn’t been a better ambassador for NASCAR. I think James would be proud.
The championship race on Sunday would be Dale Jr.’s final race.
In the three previous seasons of this playoff format it took winning the final race for the champion to be crowned. Truex Jr. had been the best driver and his team had been the best team all season long, but the title race is now a crapshoot and all three of his competitors – Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski - had won championships before and Busch and Harvick had done so in this format.
It would be a hard-fought race the entire day on Sunday with every one of the four championship eligible drivers leading the championship at one point. At the end of the race it became a dogfight between Truex and Busch. Truex had the lead, but it looked at one point like Busch had the faster car and might find a way to pass Truex to win the race and the championship. That never happened. Truex won his eighth race of the season, more races than he had won in his career coming into the year, and the championship just four years after it looked like he wouldn’t even continue in the sport. It was a feel-good story for many.
I don’t know where James is now, but wherever he is I hope he had the opportunity to see what his guys had become on Sunday in the final race of the NASCAR season. I wish I could pat him on the back and tell him “your boys done good.”
by Julian Spivey
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is retiring after 18 seasons in the NASCAR Cup Series after this weekend’s season-ending race at Miami-Homestead Speedway. Earnhardt Jr. has won two Daytona 500s in his career that has seen him reach Victory Lane in NASCAR’s highest series on 26 occasions. Earnhardt Jr. has won NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver honor a record 15 straight times and won the Busch Series (NASCAR’s minor leagues) championship in back-to-back seasons in 1998 and 1999. Most importantly Earnhardt Jr. has been one of the most likable drivers and great personalities in an era that saw the sport really boom in national popularity. The sport is certainly going to miss him on the track.
10. Most Popular Driver from 2003-2017
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has set a record for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver Award, which is a fan-voted honor, that will never be broken. When he assuredly wins the award this year it’ll be his 15th consecutive honor. Earnhardt Jr. had this thing sewn up almost from the start gaining the bulk of his father’s fanbase upon Dale Sr.’s death in 2001 and gaining millions of fans on his right through his likable personality and perseverance among tragedy. It’ll be interesting to see which driver takes the torch from Dale Jr. as “Most Popular.”
9. Michigan snaps 143-race winless streak 2012
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has unfortunately had a few rather lengthy winless streaks in his career. It’s something that must be completely disheartening for a driver to experience, especially one who’s had as much success over his career as Dale Jr. Michigan seems to be the track for Dale Jr. when he’s on a winless streak. In 2008 he snapped a 76-race winless streak at Michigan Speedway. Then in 2012 amidst a 143-race winless streak, one race shy of four full seasons, Earnhardt Jr. dominated the race winning by more than five seconds to get the monkey off his back.
8. 2000 All Star Race – first rookie to win
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been on record saying that his favorite win of his career wasn’t even a points paying race. It was his first NASCAR All Star race in 2000, in which he became the first rookie to ever win the event (he remains the only to ever do so). Earnhardt Jr. passed defending Winston Cup champion Dale Jarrett with two laps remaining in the race to take the victory. The reason for it being his favorite is his legendary father Dale Sr. got to spend the entire Victory Lane celebration with him. Dale Sr. had greeted Dale Jr. in Victory Lane twice before when Junior won his first career Cup race at Texas and his second race at Richmond, but both were brief exchanges. This time the father and son really got to experience the celebration together.
7. Wrangler #3 - 2010 Daytona
While Dale Earnhardt may have been best known for his pitch-black Goodyear car that helped gain him the nickname “The Intimidator” it was his first ride with Richard Childress in the blue and yellow Wrangler No. 3 car that Dale Jr. liked the best. Dale Jr. got the chance of a lifetime to drive this very paint scheme and that very number in the 2010 July Daytona Xfinity Series race. You just got the sense going into the race and the entire night that Dale Jr. absolutely had to put the car in Victory Lane, despite not having won in any NASCAR series in more than two years. He did just that and afterward said, “This is it. No more 3 for me.” It was a moment fans of both him and his father had always wanted to see and never will forget.
6. 1998 & 1999 Xfinity champ
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been derided occasionally over his career for not winning a NASCAR Cup Series championship, but in his defense, he has raced in the most competitive era in NASCAR history. Still he did become a NASCAR champion in 1998 and repeated in 1999 in the Busch Series (now Xfinity). Earnhardt Jr. thoroughly dominated the series in those two seasons winning 13 races, more than 20 percent of those he entered. The greatest part of it all for Dale Jr. had to be that he accomplished it driving for his father’s Dale Earnhardt Incorporated team.
5. 2000 Texas – first win
The first career win is always going to be one of the most memorable moments in any driver’s career, and if he’s lucky he’ll experience many more. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first career NASCAR Cup Series victory came at Texas Motor Speedway on April 2, 2000 during his rookie season. One of the greatest aspects of this victory was his dad, Dale Sr., joining him briefly in Victory Lane where he said, “He got a good race car, a good engine and the boy drove a good race.”
4. 2002-2003 4 straight Talladega wins
Restrictor plate racing at Talladega Superspeedway has been referred to as a crapshoot because you’re way more likely to get caught up in a big wreck than you are to win this race. Winning consecutive races at Talladega is a hard task to do. Winning four consecutive races at Talladega is almost Godlike. But, Earnhardt Jr. did just that sweeping the Cup Series races at the Alabama track in 2002 and 2003. Some said Dale Jr.’s father could see the draft and it seemed like the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s six career Cup wins at Talladega are his most of any track and is tied with Jeff Gordon for second all-time; only his father with 10 had more.
3. 2014 Daytona 500
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has compiled eight of his 26 career Cup Series wins while racing for Hendrick Motorsports, but none greater than his second career Daytona 500 victory in 2014, which came on the heels of a winless 2013 season. Earnhardt Jr. led a race high 54 laps to become the 11th driver to win multiple Daytona 500s.
2. 2004 Daytona 500
It famously took Dale Earnhardt Sr. 20 years to win the Daytona 500, a race that was obviously the most important to him and many felt he was owed after years of dominating only to fall short. It only took his son five tries to win the Crown Jewel of the NASCAR schedule. Dale Jr. led 58 laps of the race and held off laps leader Tony Stewart at the finish to win at the track and race that ended his father’s life just three years before.
1. 2001 Daytona July Race
The 2001 July race at Daytona was an emotional one with the sport coming back for the first time to the track that Dale Earnhardt Sr. had been killed at on the final lap of the Daytona 500. Everybody had their eyes on Dale Jr. There may not have ever been a race in NASCAR history where seemingly everybody watching wanted the same outcome: for Dale Jr. to win the race. In the Daytona 500 earlier in the season Dale Jr. had helped draft his Dale Earnhardt Incorporated teammate Michael Waltrip to victory. The roles would be reversed for the July race and it seemed like nobody could top the dominate DEI cars. Waltrip would push Dale Jr., who lead a race high 116 laps, past the finish line for the most emotional victory that many in the NASCAR community had ever seen. Dale Jr. would say, “Other than the wins I had when my father was there, that’ll be the day I always remember.”
by Julian Spivey
I don’t have a vote for Most Valuable Player in baseball, but if I did here would be the top five on my American League ballot and the reasons why I chose these five players …
5. Jose Ramirez (Cleveland Indians)
Jose Ramirez in the span of about two seasons has gone from a utilityman to one of the most underrated stars in the American League for the Cleveland Indians. Ramirez was the Indians most consistent offensive player this year and did so playing all over the field splitting time between second and third base this year. Ramirez hit .318 (fourth in the league) with 29 home runs 83 RBI. His 186 hits were good enough for fifth in the A.L., as well.
4. Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels)
It’s a testament to how truly great Mike Trout is that he could only play in 114 games and still be among the five best players in his league. Trout hit .306 this season with 33 homers, 72 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Trout led the American League in slugging and on-base percentage and his 6.4 WAR was the third best in the league.
3. Corey Kluber (Cleveland Indians)
Cleveland Indians ace Corey Kluber was arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball this year and should be the front-runner for his second Cy Young Award. Kluber led the A.L. with a 2.25 ERA and his 18-4 win-loss record was the best in baseball. His 265 strikeouts were second to only Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale in the A.L.
2. Aaron Judge (New York Yankees)
Aaron Judge came out of nowhere this year for the New York Yankees to stun Major League Baseball. There is a very good chance that Judge could join only Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as players to win both Rookie of the Year (for which he’s a lock) and MVP in the same season. Judge led the American League with 52 home runs, a new rookie record. His 114 RBI were second in the A.L. to Seattle Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz. Judge also hit a very respectable .284 and led the A.L. with an 8.8 WAR. His only downfall was leading the league in strikeouts and a sizeable drought during the second half of the season.
1. Jose Altuve (Houston Astros)
It wouldn’t surprise me if Aaron Judge wins the MVP based on a stunning rookie season and mostly an East Coast/New York bias, but I believe Houston Astros diminutive second baseman Jose Altuve should be the MVP. Altuve has won the American League batting title for three consecutive years and is still somewhat underappreciated. He led the A.L. this year with a .346 average, which is 16 points higher than the next guy (Avisail Garcia). Altuve’s power numbers continue to rise with him hitting 24 homers and driving in 81 runs this season while also being one of the game’s best speedsters with 32 stolen bases, third in the A.L.
by Julian Spivey
I don’t have a vote for Most Valuable Player in baseball, but if I did here would be the top five on my National League ballot and the reasons why I chose these five players …
5. Charlie Blackmon (Colorado Rockies)
Sure, his offensive numbers are likely aided by playing at Coors Field in Denver, but Charlie Blackmon’s numbers from the leadoff spot simply can’t be ignored. Blackmon set the record for most RBI from the leadoff spot this season with 104, breaking Darin Erstad’s record. He also hit 37 home runs while winning the National League batting title with a .331 average.
4. Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals)
I believe Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer should be the National League Cy Young winner this season as the N.L.’s best pitcher, but I also believe he should receive some MVP votes (which I know is controversial for some). Scherzer was the league’s most dominant pitcher this year compiling a 16-6 win-loss record with a 2.51 ERA (second in the league behind Clayton Kershaw) and a league high 7.2 WAR for pitchers.
3. Nolan Arenado (Colorado Rockies)
It might be controversial to have two Colorado Rockies on my MVP ballot top five, but the Rockies did surprise many this year by winning the second wild card in the National League and making the playoffs. It’s hard to argue with Arenado’s offensive numbers and he’s also a gold glove defender. Arenado finished third in the N.L. with 37 homers and second in the league with 130 RBI while hitting over .300. Arenado has hit 37 or more homers in each of the last three seasons.
2. Paul Goldschmidt (Arizona Diamondbacks)
Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt is the seemingly popular pick to win the National League MVP award this season with terrific all-around numbers that include 36 home runs (fourth in the league), 120 RBI (fourth in the league) and a .297 average. Goldschmidt led the surprising Diamondbacks to a playoff appearance this season and has been one of the most underrated players in baseball for much of his career.
1. Giancarlo Stanton (Miami Marlins)
Some people have a bias where they don’t believe players on teams that miss out on postseason don’t deserve to win the MVP award. In most case I believe the MVP should come from a playoff team, but Giancarlo Stanton’s 2017 offensive numbers were out of this world. Stanton hit 59 home runs, the third most all-time by a non-PED user. His 59 homers were a whopping 20 more than the runner-up in his league (Cody Bellinger). Stanton’s 132 RBI also led his league and his .281 average was 13 points higher than his career average. His 7.6 WAR also led the N.L.
by Julian Spivey
I believe it was about month ago I had a Texas Rangers game on the television while I was working on other stuff, as I often do with random sporting events, and Joey Gallo – who bounced between third base, first base and outfield this year for the Rangers – launched a moonshot. It was number thirtysomething on the year for him and I texted my friend Bobby, as I often do random baseball stats throughout the day, that Gallo was on pace for the worst 40 home run season in baseball history. I didn’t have the stats before me now, but he was hitting around the Mendoza line (.200) and almost half of his base hits on the year had left the park. I couldn’t imagine a 40-homer season being any worse and I’ve lived through the career of Adam Dunn.
In the Rangers penultimate game of the season on Saturday against the Oakland A’s Gallo, who looked for a while like he might come up short of the 40 number, hit home runs No. 40 and 41 on the year. They were his 93rd and 94th base hits of the season. He didn’t play in the Rangers final game of the season on Sunday, but if he had he would’ve needed six hits just so as not to become the first player in baseball history to hit 40-plus homers without reaching 100 hits on the season.
This brings up the question I posed to Bobby about a month ago: is Joey Gallo’s 2017 season the worst 40-homer season in baseball history?
It’s not the easiest question to answer, honestly, because baseball is no longer a game of if you hit for a high average and drive a lot of runs in you’re having a good year. In the sabermetrics world you can strikeout 208 times like New York Yankees rookie slugger Aaron Judge did this season and have a WAR (Wins Above Replacement) of 8.0 and potentially win a MVP Award.
Still, I looked up a bunch of bad to terrible 40 home run seasons to determine what I felt was the worst of all-time, which honestly wasn’t that hard because most such seasons have been done in the last two decades of the game.
I settled upon three 40-plus homer seasons to decide upon as the worst of all-time, each of which have come within the last six seasons. Those seasons were Adam Dunn’s 2012 year for the Chicago White Sox, Chris Carter’s 2016 season for the Milwaukee Brewers and, of course, Gallo’s season this year.
Here are some numbers I’ve highlighted for those three seasons:
Adam Dunn (2012): .204 average, 41 home runs, 96 RBI, 110 hits, 222 strikeouts, .800 OPS and 1.4 WAR
Chris Carter (2016): .222 average, 47 home runs, 94 RBI, 122 hits, 206 strikeouts, .821 OPS and 0.9 WAR
Joey Gallo (2017): .209 average, 41 home runs, 80 RBI, 94 hits, 196 strikeouts, .869 OPS and 3.1 WAR
It should be noted right away that if you’re into sabermetrics and not much else you’re probably going to want to eliminate Gallo’s season from contention right away because his OPS (On-base plus slugging percentage) is quite a bit better than Carter or Dunn’s. You’ll also note his WAR is more almost two points higher than that of the other two seasons.
There are two things I absolutely can’t get over with Gallo’s season: as previously mentioned it’s the only 40-homer season in baseball history in which the batter didn’t have 100 hits. Getting hits would seem to be the most basic thing about baseball. Well, that’s actually getting on base. Gallo and Dunn’s seasons had an identical .333 OBS (on-base percentage) and Carter had slightly less .321. It should be noted that Dunn did lead the American League in walks in 2012 with 105, despite the fact he couldn’t hit a lick with a .204 batting average (the worst average of any 40-homer season I could find). Dunn also led the A.L. in strikeouts that season with 206. Gallo did not lead the A.L. in striking out this year. He struck out 196 times compared to Judge’s 208, but it should be noted that Judge had almost 100 more at-bats this season than Gallo. How many more strikeouts would Gallo have had with those extra ABs? How many more homers would he have hit too?
Many modern-day baseball stats nerds don’t value the RBI (run batted in). I understand this because it can be an inflated statistic. The number of RBI a player has is dictated by the number of teammates he has on base in front of him to drive home. Gallo only had 80 RBI this season, which is also the lowest number of RBI in MLB history for a 40-homer season and a whopping 12 fewer than the next lowest number, which was Adam Dunn’s 92 for the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 (maybe the fourth worst 40-homer season in baseball history based on my research).
Here’s the thing though the Rangers were in the top 10 in the league in runs scored this season, and have the most of any time that didn’t make the playoffs and scored more than the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, which won the A.L. East and N.L. West divisions respectively. I don’t know if the guys directly in front of Gallo in the lineup just had the bad knack for not being on the pond when he came to the plate, but I’ve got to feel he had plenty of opportunities to drive in more runs. Also, I still value the RBI more than most. Maybe I’m too old school, but that’s me.
So, how should I decide which 40-homer season is the worst of all-time? This may be a little too simplistic, but what I’ve done is I’ve taken the three seasons from Gallo, Carter and Dunn and the key statistical categories listed above and given the three hitters a rank from first to third in each category. I then added those five categories up and divided by five. The highest average of the three seasons would take the cake. Here’s how the numbers came out: Chris Carter 1.8, Adam Dunn 2.0, Joey Gallo 2.2.
It is my determination – though not scientifically as you can see – that Joey Gallo’s 2017 season is the worst of any 40-homer season in baseball history.
The Rangers have a lot of excitement about Gallo’s future, and they should. This was only his first full-time season and his numbers looked better than the cups of coffee he had the two previous years. But, for him to really have the future the Rangers hope from him he’s going to have to learn there’s a little more to the game of baseball than being an all or nothing player.
by Julian Spivey
The NASCAR playoffs begin today (Sept. 17) at Chicagoland Speedway for the Monster Energy Cup Series. Here are my rankings of the 16 playoff drivers from least likely to most likely to win the NASCAR championship:
16. Jamie McMurray
15. Kasey Kahne
14. Ryan Newman
13. Austin Dillon
In today’s NASCAR, you must consistently be a threat to win races to have any shot at winning the championship and these four drivers just don’t threaten Victory Lane often enough, despite three of these guys winning a race this year. McMurray hasn’t won a race since 2013. Newman and Dillon’s wins this season both came on pit strategy, which doesn’t exactly stoke expectations of being able to win on their own. Kahne’s win at the Brickyard 400 at Indy was impressive, but his first win in three seasons. You really must be a threat to win multiple times in the playoffs to win a championship. These guys can’t win multiple times a season.
12. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
Coming into this season Stenhouse’s career had been a complete disappointment. In fact, I didn’t believe he belonged in the Cup Series any longer. Then he won first career race at Talladega in the Spring and backed it up with a second win at Daytona this summer. The only problem with this is he only seems capable of winning at restrictor plate tracks. To his advantage Talladega is in the second round of the playoffs if he can reach it and a win again there would automatically move him to round three. But, can any driver win three consecutive plate races?
11. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott has yet to win a NASCAR Cup race in his first two seasons, but I’m going a little easier on him than I did McMurray, Kahne, Newman and Dillon because he’s young and I believe once that first win comes the floodgates will open much like they did for Kyle Larson.
10. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney got his first career Cup win this season at Pocono in his second full-time season, but he may be a little too young in his career to threaten for a title now. It is fantastic to see the Wood Brothers Racing team in the playoffs, though.
9. Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth is the highest driver on this list who hasn’t won a race this season and, in fact, he was the very last driver to qualify for the playoffs on points. Still, there are two reasons why he’s in the top 10: 1) he’s a veteran who won’t worry much about his winless streak 2) he drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, which I believe is still the most dominant team in NASCAR. I hope Kenseth does well too because he currently doesn’t have a ride for next season and a good performance might sure one up.
8. Kurt Busch
Kurt Busch won the season-opening Daytona 500 and hasn’t won a race since then. I honestly don’t believe his chances at winning the title are very high, but I do have him in the top half of playoff drivers based on his veteran status. The champion will almost certainly come from the top seven drivers on this list.
7. Brad Keselowski
Penske Racing has seemingly been a little bit down this year, especially with Joey Logano missing the playoffs (the biggest surprise of the season maybe thus far), but Brad Keselowski is always a threat to win race, he’s won two this year, and his aggressiveness may benefit him in the playoffs. It could just as easily hinder him, as well.
6. Kevin Harvick
Kevin Harvick, the 2014 Cup Series champion, has been the most consistent driver in NASCAR over the last three to four seasons and it’s that consistency that has me believing he’s a major threat. However, he’s only found Victory Lane once this year, at the road course at Sonoma. There’s reason to believe the Stewart-Haas Racing switch from Chevrolet to Ford has hurt the team a bit with its four drivers only combining for two wins through 26 races.
5. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is my prediction for the driver to just miss out making the championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway this season. He’s consistently been Joe Gibbs Racing’s second-best driver this year and recently won his second race of the season at Darlington Raceway two weeks ago.
4. Jimmie Johnson
I will never count Jimmie Johnson out. He showed us last season exactly why you shouldn’t do such a thing when he won his record-tying seventh championship. His season this year is like last season’s. Johnson has won three races this season, but all three came within the first quarter of the year. He and crew chief Chad Knaus have seemingly shown the ability in the past to be able to turn it on whenever needed.
3. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson is a lot of people’s favorite to win the championship this year and his four wins this season are tied with Martin Truex Jr. for most in the series. I have no questions about Larson’s talent, but I do have some about his experience. Can he keep his head together and make the final race of the season? I also wonder if his team Chip Ganassi Racing can keep up with Gibbs, Hendrick and the Furniture Row team aided by Gibbs.
2. Kyle Busch
Kyle Busch is the most talented driver in NASCAR. Kyle Busch drives for the best and most competitive team in NASCAR with Joe Gibbs Racing. The 2015 champion must be considered a title threat always. Busch’s two wins this season aren’t exactly indicative of how close he’s been to Victory Lane all season.
1. Martin Truex Jr.
There’s absolutely no way I could consider any other driver a NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series championship favorite other than Martin Truex Jr., who’s seemingly made the series his playground this season along with crew chief Cole Pearn, who I believe is the actual star of this team. Why do I believe this? Truex had three career wins in a decade of racing before teaming up with Pearn. He’s won eight races in the less than two seasons they’ve been together. Honestly, Truex should have won even more than the series-leading four he’s won this season, but has experienced some late race bad luck.
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.