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.