The Great Comeback Team

Sports Central | Ross Lancaster ( Sports Central | Tuesday, October 30th, 2007 )

The anticlimactic nature of the 2007 World Series could have best been summed up in the top the eighth inning in Sunday night’s Game 4, when news broke of Alex Rodriguez opting out of his mega-contract. Or, as it might be more correctly stated, when agent Scott Boras broke the news to his contacts that he was going to drop this on everyone during a World Series game.

And for that half-inning, a free-agency story on October 28 became bigger than the actual game on the field.

To be fair, who can blame FOX for the 10 close-ups of John Henry either on his Blackberry or talking to other Red Sox higher-ups?

After all, this postseason’s best game was one that baseball doesn’t even recognize as an actual playoff game (the NL tiebreaker between the Rockies and Padres). Plus, the thought of A-Rod moving to his current club’s sworn arch-enemy was more intriguing than the game and the series being given to the average viewer.

The real story, however, to this average viewer who only watches baseball in very late September and October, was how the Red Sox had managed to come up so big with their arms and bats at every occasion necessary after losing Game 4 of the League Championship Series in Cleveland.

And at hardly any point in any of the seven straight Boston victories to close the postseason, did I believe that the Red Sox would lose even once.

Game 5 at Cleveland had Josh Beckett pitching for Boston in October, which would probably mean a loss for even the 1927 Yankees. Game 6 was a blowout from the start with J.D. Drew’s lined Grand Slam shot to the Fenway Park center field camera stands.

Game 7 will see an 11-2 game officially in the record books, but was a 3-2 game in the seventh before Kenny Lofton was held at third, a decision that more or less ended the game for Cleveland given the quality of the Red Sox bullpen.

And the story continued with the Game 1 domination of Beckett and the bats over Jeff Francis and the over-rested Rockies. It’s easy to forget that Colorado led in the top of the first in Game 2, but the confident Red Sox did just enough and won with the pitching of Curt Schilling, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon, 2-1.

The marathon that was Game 3 was the one in which I had the feeling the Red Sox would lose, after Boston nearly let their six run lead run dry, after Matt Holliday’s three-run centerfield homer. Game 4, while another one-run game, had the Red Sox bats striking early, with Papelbon earning another fantastic, over one-inning save.

All seven games, in their own ways, outlined the greatness of this Red Sox team. And I’m not talking about greatness as in “this team is now a dynasty,” or “this team is one of the greatest ever,” I’m talking about the ability for the Red Sox to have their backs against the wall in the 2004 LCS and 2007 LCS, and turn both into dominant World Series sweeps.

Despite having 80% roster turnover between 2004 and 2007, it seems like this team and their comeback was a direct extension of that team and that comeback.

Along the same lines, it really is no coincidence that after Game 4 in Cleveland, when David Ortiz and Schilling called a players-only meeting that the Red Sox resembled the team that won four straight do-or-die games against the Yankees.

When history looks back on this postseason, it will see that five out of seven postseason series were sweeps. The thing to remember, though, is what an outstanding team the Red Sox were when they had to be.

Sports Central

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In the Box: NFL Week 8

Sports Central | Seth Doria ( Sports Central | Tuesday, October 30th, 2007 )

Colts Pats Colts Pats Colts Pats Brady Brady Brady Manning Manning Manning Colts Pats Colts Pats Colts Pats Playoffs Playoffs Undefeated Colts Pats Bill Belichick Colts Pats Tony Dungy Colts Pats Moss Colts Pats Marvin Colts Pats Super Bowl Colts Pats Spygate Colts Pats Home Field Advantage Colts Pats Colts Pats Colts Pats.

Everything else.

Get used to it. With the Red Sox’ quick dispatching of the Rockies and the long, slow train to the NBA Finals just barely turning its wheels, Colts/Pats is the hype machine perfect storm.

And because that’s all everybody else is writing about, I’m going to go ahead and push up the mid-season recap and exclude everybody from the Pats and Colts. There are 30 other teams in the league, and, for these next 1,000 words or so, it’s all about them.

The bests and mosts, worsts, and leasts:

Five Best Story Lines:

Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards, and the resurgent Cleveland Browns

The rejuvenation of Brett Favre (breaking Dan Marino’s TD record and the Packers are 6-1)

The developing comeback of the Saints from 0-4 to NFC South champs

The resilience of the Buffalo Bills

Return of the Living Dead (Kurt Warner, Daunte Culpepper, Vinny Testaverde)

Five Worst Story Lines:

Rex Grossman vs. Brian Griese

Travis Henry (nine kids by nine women and a possible year-long drug suspension)

Year one of the Bobby Petrino/post-Michael Vick era in Atlanta

The pre-mature death drums on Norv Turner (I repent)

Spygate (Can’t leave it out; It’s the defining story of the year)

Five Most Pleasant Surprises: Lions, Packers, Titans, Giants, Chiefs (especially on defense on those last two)

Five Biggest Disappointments: Bears, Bengals, Broncos, Rams, Dolphins (I knew those last two would stink, but damn)

Top five MVP candidates not named Tom Brady or Peyton Manning:

Jared Allen, DE, Kansas City (8 sacks in 5 games; completely transformed this Chiefs defense after a two-game suspension to begin the season)

Adrian Peterson, RB, Minnesota (740 yards rushing with a 5.8 average and 5 TD; 11 catches for 187 yards and a TD)

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh (15 TD and 6 INT, 65% completion; Gets the nod over Tony Romo because he didn’t throw 18 interceptions against the Bills)

LaDainian Tomlinson, RB, San Diego (527 yards rushing with a 4.3 average and 6 TD; 25 catches for 210 yards and a TD; 1 pass TD)

T.J. Houshmandzadeh (58 receptions for 629 yards and 9 TD)

Best Coaching Job: Romeo Crennel, Cleveland

Worst Coaching Job: Eric Mangini, NY Jets

Best Rookies (Offense): Peterson; Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City; Marshawn Lynch, RB, Buffalo; Joe Thomas, LT, Cleveland; Joe Staley, RT, San Francisco; Selvin Young, RB, Denver, James Jones, WR, Green Bay

Best Rookies (Defense): Patrick Willis, LB, San Francisco; Jon Beason, LB, Carolina; Eric Wright, CB, Cleveland; LaRon Landy, S, Washington; Eric Weddle, S, San Diego; Amobi Okoye, DT, Houston

Best Rookies (Special Teams): Nick Folk, K, Dallas; Mason Crosby, K, Green Bay; Daniel Sepulveda, P, Pittsburgh; Yamon Figurs, KR, Baltimore; Jacoby Jones, PR, Houston

(If anybody knows a place to find special teams tackles, I’d love to see it.)

Most Productive Free-Agent Signings: Donnie Edwards, LB, Kansas City; Napoleon Harris, LB, Kansas City; London Fletcher, LB, Washington; Sean Mahan, C, Pittsburgh; Jeff Garcia, QB, Tampa Bay; Patrick Kerney, DE, Seattle; Shaun McDonald, WR, Detroit; Kevin Curtis, WR, Philadelphia (Maybe the Rams should have kept one of those last two.)

Least Productive Free-Agent Signings: Joey Porter, LB, Miami; Ashley Lelie, WR, San Francisco; Adam Archuleta, S, Chicago; Drew Bennett, WR, St. Louis; Jason David, CB, New Orleans; David Carr, QB, Carolina; Ahman Green, RB, Houston; Joey Harrington, QB, Atlanta

Coaches most in danger of being fired before the end of the season: Scott Linehan, St. Louis (I don’t think it’s going to happen, but this is the worst Rams team since they moved to St. Louis, including the Tony Banks years. That’s going to be hard to survive.); Brian Billick, Baltimore (After last year’s warning from the owner and the messy Jim Fossil divorce, a late-season tank might be the final straw.)

Five most damaging injuries: Andre Johnson, WR, Houston; Orlando Pace, LT, St. Louis; Jake Delhomme, QB, Carolina; Jonathan Ogden, LT, Baltimore; Mike Brown, S, Chicago

And because this is a column that recaps the previous Sunday, a brief recap of the ugliness that was Week 8:

Detroit 16, Chicago 7: Maybe the Bears should give that Grossman kid a chance.

Indianapolis 31, Carolina 7: The Panthers are 0-3 at home, 4-0 on the road. Weird.

Jacksonville 24, Tampa Bay 23: The Bucs have out-gained the Jags and Lions by a combined 350 yards over the past two weeks and lost both games.

New Orleans 31, San Francisco 10: In a world without Pats/Colts, Drew Brees’ 31-of-39 for 336 yards and 4 TD is the headline of the weekend.

New England 52, Washington 7: It’s like they got bored just throwing to Randy Moss all the time, so now they’re going to everybody else. I can’t wait to see how that Pats offense matches up against that Colts Tampa 2 with Bob Sanders the x-factor all over the field.

(Sorry. Won’t happen again.)

San Diego 35, Houston 10: If I told you Team A had a 130-yard and 13-minute time of possession advantage over Team B, who would you think won the game?

(The Chargers were Team B.)

Buffalo 13, NY Jets 3: Chad Pennington finally lost his job. Next up, though probably not until after the season, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. His play-calling stinks.

Tennessee 13, Oakland 9: The Titans won an NFL game with six completed passes. What is this? 1951?

(Philip Rivers only completed 7 for San Diego, Quinn Gray 7 for Jacksonville, and Eli Manning 8 for the Giants. Like Young, all three won the game.)

NY Giants 13, Miami 10: I am shocked a game in England would be rain-soaked, soggy mess. Absolutely shocked.

Cleveland 27, St. Louis 20: On the road, the Browns committed 14 penalties for more than 100 yards and allowed nearly 400 yards to the opposing offense. And they won. Are there any rules of winning that apply anymore?

Philadelphia 23, Minnesota 16: If your game plan involves the words “Brooks Bollinger,” you are going to lose.

Pittsburgh 24, Cincinnati 13: The Steelers should have won by more. They feel like a 12-win team who goes one-and-done in the playoffs.

Green Bay 19, Denver 13: First play of overtime, Brett Favre throws the bomb. Classic.

Sports Central

Where the Yankees Would Be

Sports Central | Kevin Beane ( Sports Central | Thursday, October 25th, 2007 )

I sometimes refer to myself as an anti-conspiracy theorist. I’m not naive enough to think that everything in history went down exactly like the textbooks say, but I have noticed that most conspiracy theories told are self-serving and beneficial to the teller.

Sports are no different. No one thinks the refs or the media is easy on their team, or even fair to them. In fact, the way these woe-is-me echo chambers of paranoia combust so easily is what drives me away from sports message boards these days. Everyone sees the sports world through their own inadequate looking glass.

That said, I really have to wonder about the timing of the media leak that Paul Byrd took Human Growth Hormone. The day of game 7 of the ALCS, with things slipping away from the Indians? That’s when someone decided to tip off the San Francisco Chronicle (Byrd maintains that he only took HGH under a doctor’s prescription and supervision)? Is it worth noting that the steroid investigation’s head, George Mitchell of the George Mitchell Report, sits on the Red Sox board?

So tell me, readers. Am I just being a paranoid Indians fan, or am I right to wonder about the timing of this?

Maybe it’s just because the Indians lost, but these days, the Red Sox and their Nation make it harder and harder to be a Yankee hater.

For starters, I do indeed love New York, the city. Haven’t been to Boston, but I keep reading about surprising (in this day and age) accounts of ugliness and even racism, such as the saga of Pumpsie Green, the first black player to play for Boston on the very last team in the league to integrate.

Secondly, it’s very easy to root against Bill Simmons, Boston’s most visible, obnoxious torch-bearer, their fans just somehow seem more contemptible than fans of other teams. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it’s simply the wicked awesome Bahston accent and verbiage. Not a pretty sound.

Thirdly, I never forgave Manny Ramirez for leaving, and I’ll never forget the Akron Beacon Journal’s account of a conversation between Ramirez and the Tribe’s clubhouse manager. Allegedly, Manny wanted to stay in Cleveland, even for less money … but he’s afraid the rest of the league would think he was stupid and make fun of him if he did.

Still, while I count two diehard Yankee fans among my friends, two of the nicest guys you will ever meet (I know no big Red Sox fans), I can’t quite bring myself to say I support the Yankees in the legendary rivalry. When someone asks me if I’m behind the Sox or the Yankees, my answer is always, “neither.” While that’s technically true — I do not have a horse in that race — it’s an evasive answer. When the Yankees/Red Sox are on television, you’re pulling for one of those teams, even if neither is your steady.

And yet I just cannot bring myself to root for the Yankees, unless a win by them benefits the Indians. It just feels wrong. I am an underdog lover, and no matter how much the Red Sox open their wallet and spend like the Yankees, they will continue to be the underdogs until they win thirty-odd more World Series titles.

The English soccer version of Red Sox/Yankees, at least at the moment if not historically, is Manchester United/Chelsea. I’ve written before about the fascinating differences between American sports culture and European sports cultures, because not only are they different, but opposites in many cases, and a rebuke of their own political culture (in short, European sports leagues are run much more capitalistically then the revenue-sharing, parity-emphasizing American sports scene).

Man U/Chelsea is another great example. Man U are definitely the Yankees there, the most storied and successful side in the history of english football, if not all of Europe. It’s the first and usually the only English soccer team the average American can name.

Chelsea is the new kid on the block. They weren’t even in the top league as recently as 1989, and didn’t make the top three in the league after that for another 10 years.

Since then, though, Chelsea has battled for the top spot with Man U and other interlopers regularly … yet in the message boards, press, and pubs, it’s very clearly Chelsea that has earned the nation’s enmity. They say Chelsea bought their way into competitiveness (true), say they will never be “loved” like Man U is, and frequently refer to them as “Chelski,” a derogatory reference to the Russian owner that his seen them through to competitiveness.

The first charge, the one about buying a championship, is curious. If you’re a fan of a lesser team, wouldn’t you kill for it? Or are you saying, “If we get bought by a fabulously wealthy businessman, I sure hope he passes up on the stars of the world and just concentrates on investment in the youth squads and development!”

Is Man U any better? Perhaps, but by an utterly negligible margin. I count three meaningful contributors to the Man U senior club that came up through their system: Paul Scholes, Wes Brown, and Gary Neville. Chelsea has one, John Terry. The rest of the guys on both teams are the world’s best, and didn’t come cheap.

So why is it okay for Manchester United to buy guys like Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, and despicable when Chelsea does it? I have no clue. But Yankee fans can take heart that, in jolly old England, it is they, the overdogs and legends, who would be universally loved.

Sports Central

Already Past the Long Winter

Sports Central | Jonathan Lowe ( Sports Central | Monday, October 29th, 2007 )

Has it been that long since San Antonio swept Cleveland to win yet another title? Are we already that much past the Draft? Have we put all the rookie camps and preseason games behind us?

That’s right. The NBA is back and rollin’ the dice on another season (er, bad use of words … sorry refs). With the League back in session this week, there’s no time for these players to look back. They have to be full-speed ahead. No worries, gents. I’ve made it easy on you.

All you need to do is take some time and let me decide who will make the playoffs for you. No season of wear and tear. No long 8-13 day road trips. It’s not even necessary to unpack your gear. Of course, you could try to prove me wrong (easier done than said). All right, lay it on me crystal ball. Who’s got the goods to keep playing in late April?

Atlantic Division

This was basically a division of youth last season, with plenty of also-rans to fill in the gaps. Even with established names such as Paul Pierce, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, and Stephon Marbury, the division-winning Raptors were led by relative youngster Chris Bosh.

That rep got shaken up during the offseason with Boston’s huge facelift. The Celtics’ acquisitions of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett (while shuffling off most of their young core of players to Seattle and Minnesota) vastly improved their superstar punch. If we’ve learned anything from the past, it’s that more than one big name helps when fighting for a title. If we’ve learned anything else (i.e. the 2004 L.A. Lakers), it’s to keep from anointing a team too quickly.

Division winner: Boston

Other playoff qualifier: Toronto

Southeast Division

This could be the wildest division of all in ’07-’08. The defending champs in Miami have loads of experience (I mean, by the jumbo jet-full). But do will they have enough legs to make a push? Washington has a handful of scoring talent, an underrated head coach, and one of the most clutch players in the game. But can they be consistent enough?

Atlanta looked improved at times last season, and Joe Johnson might make his worth out of that phat contract. But can the Hawks take the next step? Speaking of which, Orlando shot out of the gate to the best record in the conference through almost a quarter of last season. But can they be more consistent and move to the top of the standings?

As far as Charlotte goes, can they stay healthy and get any forward progress?

Division winner: Orlando

Other playoff qualifier: Atlanta (that’s right, I said it)

Central Division

Three of the last four years, the Eastern Conference representative in the Finals has come from this division. At first glance, the East might want to look that way again for their best chance to swipe the trophy back from the West. Detroit still has most of their veteran nucleus and added some grinders in Arron Afflalo and Sammy Mejia. Cleveland apparently has enough in LeBron James.

The focus should be on Chicago. The Bulls continued to get deeper by drafting Joakim Noah’s intensity, JamesOn Curry’s athleticism, and Aaron Gary’s physicality. That, and another year under the Toddler Bulls’ belt (a little older than babies), should be enough to overtake the rival Pistons.

The Indiana Pacers started to gel late last season, just missing the final playoff spot. With Jermaine O’Neal back in the middle, plus another year of experience for guys like Danny Granger and Ike Diogu, I feel they will finish that push and get in the postseason over Washington and New Jersey.

Division champs: Chicago*

Other playoff qualifiers: Detroit, Cleveland, Indiana

Northwest Division

It’s not so much a tale of haves and have-nots as it is one of in-style and ahead of its time. Utah gelled somethin’ fierce on its way to the Western Conference finals last season. The maturation of Deron Williams and consistent play of Carlos Boozer might turn them into this generation’s Stockton and Malone.

Denver might be one of the top three or four teams in the league when it comes to talent. But even with Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Marcus Camby, Kenyon Martin, and J.R. Smith, there’s no substitute for underachieving. The players have the talent to pass by Utah again, but can they get over that last factor.

Minnesota, Portland, and Seattle are all young. But they will all be young and on the rise. I’m telling you right now, I would not want to be in this division come 2009. It sounds silly now, but I think they’ll all be scary.

Division champs: Denver

Other playoff qualifiers: Utah

Pacific Division

This is becoming the run-and-gun division once again, with Phoenix and Phoenix Lite (Golden State) leading the way. They may not be the same, but their similar mentalities will drive opponents nuts. Steve Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and Shawn Marion will get the most wins, but Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, and Al Harrington will provide plenty of fuel to the fire.

The L.A. teams appear to be stuck in the mud. Neither did much to improve or even shake up the locker rooms during summer vacation. The Clippers are starting to look fairly old and have the added weight of proving that their playoff run two seasons ago was no fluke. The Lakers are in deep with Kobe Bryant controversy and might be an entirely different team by opening night.

Sacramento has talent, but they have to usher in a new coach in Reggie Theus. He might have done wonders at New Mexico State, but this is a whole new ballgame.

Division champs: Phoenix

Other playoff qualifiers: Golden State

Southwest Division

In my mind, this is the deepest division in the Association. The defending champion Spurs have their entire crew back, which means trouble for everyone else that wears an NBA uniform. Even so, it was Dallas (not San Antonio) who had the league’s best record last season. Then add in Houston, who jettisoned one playoff proven coach for another. A breath of that Texas air might be just what Rick Adelman needed.

New Orleans has a lot a talent waiting to explode on the scene. Problem is, they can’t even light the fuse. Injuries have killed any and all opportunities for the Hornets to gain traction the last couple of years. If they stay healthy, watch out. Unfortunately, I don’t see it that way.

Memphis is also fairly talented. They completely bottomed out last season after getting a decent seed in the playoffs two years back. People have been drooling over the play of rookie guard Mike Conley, Jr. If he can deliver the goods night in and night out, I think their start will re-rise quickly.

Division champ: Dallas

Other playoff qualifiers: San Antonio, Houston, Memphis (can you say shooting star?)

Well, since I laid out the divisions (however briefly), here’s my pecking order for the playoffs … five-plus months in advance.

Eastern Conference

1) Chicago

2) Boston

3) Orlando

4) Detroit

5) Toronto

6) Cleveland

7) Indiana

8) Atlanta

Western Conference

1) Phoenix

2) Dallas

3) San Antonio

4) Denver

5) Utah

6) Houston

7) Golden State

8) Memphis

Granted, there are a couple of surprises in the list. But for someone who actually got 13 out of the last season’s 16 teams right (although, not exactly where), I’ll take what I can get.

Sports Central

The World Series

Sports Central | Phil Backert ( Sports Central | Monday, October 29th, 2007 )

The Colorado Rockies learned the hard way: the Boston Red Sox are just too talented. The 2007 World Series champions swept the Rockies and earned their second title in four years. The Red Sox were on the ropes in the American League Championship Series by trailing 3-1 at one point, but when you give a team like Boston a second life, they will make any team pay. The Cleveland Indians saw that first hand and the Rockies just experienced how deep and talented Boston truly is. The Red Sox do everything right: they have outstanding starting pitching, speed, power, and clutch hitting.

The Rockies entered the World Series at an historical rate. They won 21 of 22 games including a 7-0 record in the playoffs. However, they never faced a pitching staff that includes starting pitchers Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka (Dice-K), and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Also, as good as the Rockies pitching staff was through the first seven playoff games, they never faced a murderer’s row that includes Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, and Mike Lowell. Lowell went on to win the World Series MVP by hitting .400 (6-for-15) with 4 RBIs, 3 walks, and a team-high 6 runs.

I really thought the Rockies could give Boston a series, but the nine-day layoff really affected this team. I know after the first game Colorado should be acclimated again to a live baseball game, but the fact is Boston had so much momentum that Colorado didn’t even have a chance to capitalize on anything. In Game 1, the Rockies trailed 4-1 after the second inning. In Game 2, they were in the ballgame the entire time, but Schilling and the Red Sox bullpen dominated. Also, after the first two games, Colorado’s bottom three hitters were a combined 3-for-33 with 11 strikeouts. It is tough to win any ballgame when one-third of your lineup is struggling so badly.

Colorado continued the trend of trailing early in Game 3 as they were quickly looking at a six-run deficit when the fourth inning was beginning. The Rockies showed heart by trying to climb out of the 6-0 lead that the Red Sox had built, but eventually Boston will capitalize, and they did, as they scored 4 runs in the last two innings to win by the score of 10-5. In Game 4, Colorado failed to pick up key hits, twice stranding runners at second base and the bullpen failed to pitch effectively.

Boston, however, did what they have done all series long, and that is pitch well and pick up key hits. Pinch hitter Bobby Kielty hit a home run in the top of the eighth, which ended up being the deciding run in the game. Colorado cut the lead to one in the bottom of the eighth inning on a Garrett Atkins two-run home run, but Boston brought in Papelbon, and he shut the door, recording the last five outs in the ballgame.

As a baseball fan, you have to respect the Rockies and what they did to get this far. They went on a historical winning streak and they proved that a small market team can win, but they faced a juggernaut, and sometimes that is all it takes for a team to cool down quickly. Boston deserves the championship as they won seven straight games to end their championship season. They also outscored all their postseason opponents by the score of 99-46. The Red Sox mixed veterans with young budding superstars, and have the makings of a team that can continue to play at a high level for years to come.

By the Numbers

Avg: Boston: .333; Colorado: .218

ERA: Boston: 2.50; Colorado: 7.68

RISP: Boston: .419; Colorado: .167

Extra Base Hits: Boston: 21; Colorado: 10

Sports Central

Top 10 Power Rankings

Sports Central | Jeffrey Boswell ( Sports Central | Thursday, October 25th, 2007 )

1. Jeff Gordon — Gordon started on the pole and led the most laps, but couldn’t complete the trifecta, finishing third after a lengthy and spirited battle with Jimmie Johnson. Gordon’s lead in the points was trimmed from 68 to 53.

“I think there were cautions within cautions,” says Gordon. “I think the flag man will have to undergo Tommy John surgery after blowing out his elbow.”

2. Jimmie Johnson — Johnson won for the seventh time this year with a grueling win at Martinsville, where he held off teammate Jeff Gordon and Penske’s Ryan Newman. Johnson slipped under Gordon with 44 laps remaining and held on after several patience and nerve-racking cautions and restarts. He now trails Gordon by 53 points.

“It was a blast racing against Jeff under green,” says Johnson. “All 3/4 laps of it.”

3. Clint Bowyer — Bowyer raced to a ninth-place finish in the Subway 500, his 16th top-10 of they year, but that was not nearly enough to gain ground on Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Bowyer trailed Gordon by 78 entering the race; now he’s 115 behind, and 62 behind Johnson in second.

“Sure, it looks like an all-Hendrick battle at this point,” says Bowyer. “But anything is possible. If two Formula 1 McLaren drivers can blow a last-race lead, as Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton did in Brazil, then so can two Hendrick drivers. It will take teamwork on their part, like taking each other out in four consecutive races.”

4. Tony Stewart — Stewart finished 13th in Martinsville, which would have been a decent result in April, but not in October when you entered the race trailing the points leader by almost 200 points. Stewart holds on to fourth in the points, but is now 249 behind Jeff Gordon.

“How many caution flags were there?” asks Stewart. “21? I think there were an equal number of spins by Martin Truex alone. His DEI car had a working engine; it was just lacking a driver.”

5. Kyle Busch — Busch was part of an unstoppable Hendrick Motorsports contingent, finishing fourth behind race winner Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon in third. Busch is in sixth in the points standings, 290 out of first.

“That was a four-hour traffic jam disguised as a race,” says Busch. “Some fans were so excited by what they witnessed that they had to go relive it personally by leaving the track and sitting in traffic for four more hours.”

6. Carl Edwards — Edwards experienced an electrical problem on lap 185, forcing him to switch to the backup battery. Edwards also switched off the brake fans to conserve power, and nursed this situation until the end of the race, pulling out an 11th-place finish. He remains fifth in the points, now 285 out of first.

“I guess you’ve heard about my confrontation with Matt Kenseth after the race,” says Edwards. “He’s probably the only driver out here I can raise a fist to and not expect to get my tail kicked. It’s simple: we just don’t get along. I think it all stems from that seminar we attended together at the Sheridan called ‘Teamwork: The Rusty Wallace-Ryan Newman Model.'”

7. Denny Hamlin — Hamlin finished sixth in the Subway 500 and moved up one spot to eighth in the points, where he’s 374 off of Jeff Gordon’s lead.

“The drama is certainly in order for the Jeff Gordon/Jimmie Johnson battle down the stretch,” says Hamlin. “It’s just too bad they don’t hate each others guts, a scenario that would make the final four races much more entertaining. Can you imagine carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth in Gordon and Johnson’s places, or Tony Stewart and I? There would definitely be real punches thrown.”

8. Kevin Harvick — Harvick battled a tight-handling car all day, but managed to pull out a 10th-place finish in the caution-marred race. He improves one place to seventh in the standings, 369 out of first.

“I know it’s possible to doze off watching a race,” says Harvick. “But never did I think it was possible while driving in the race. Maybe I was dreaming, but did I see the pace car spin out?”

9. Jeff Burton — Burton overcame a commitment line violation and subsequent penalty to finish 12th in Martinsville. He moved up one spot to ninth in the points, where he is 409 points out of first.

“Commitment line violation?” says Burton. “I thought that was a punishment applicable to anyone making the leap in a union with Pamela Anderson. I think her commitment line lies somewhere below her waist.”

10. Kurt Busch — Busch slammed the wall on lap 166, bringing out one of a record 21 cautions in Sunday’s Subway 500. He managed to finish 31st, and fell three places in the points to tenth, 420 out of first.

Handicapping the Preseason

HANDICAPPING THE PRESEASON

Most professional handicappers believe NFL preseason games can be quite profitable. But you must be selective. NFL exhibitions are, after all, just games for television and advertising money. The key is betting on the side that will use the better players for that game.

THE PROGRESSION PRESEASON PLAN

Most NFL teams use the starters for the first couple of series or the first quarter in preseason game one, then the backups for a quarter-plus, then the reserves. In game two, starters go one or two quarters, then the backups play one-plus quarters, then the reserves and so on. Game three is really the dress rehearsal for the regular season, with the starters usually going into the third quarter. Backups go the rest of the way. In the final game, the starters play only briefly, if at all, with the backups and reserves going the rest of the way for those players on the bubble.

THE COACHES UNWRITTEN AGREEMENT

There is a gentleman’s agreement among the coaches in the NFL preseason and it goes like this: “I will play my starters only against your starters, my backups against your backups, my reserves against your reserves and so on.” Plus, I will limit blitzes to obvious situations in the first two games. The good news is that not all the coaches agree to this all the time. Many coaches get pissed after a bad performance or two straight losses. Some coaches like (Bill Cowher and Bill “Big Tuna” Parcells) like to blitz any time they feel like it. And a few like to put in starters late to ensure a win.

ANGLES TO LOOK FOR

The use of better personnel is the biggest difference: either due to injury, competition, or quality depth, especially at quarterback. Most first time quarterbacks will struggle late in games giving more points to the opponent then themselves. Teams with one game under their belt fare better than ones playing for the first time. Teams starting off at 0-2 want the next one bad, because the last game is a throwaway before the season starts.

Good luck!