This week, a doubleheader at Pocono Raceway marks the 18th and 19th races of the 36-race NASCAR season: the end of the first half and start of the second.
Despite being only halfway through the season, there has been no shortage of interesting, historic or just downright odd statistical storylines.
Hendrick Motorsports owns the first half
With eight wins in 17 races to start the season, Hendrick Motorsports has already surpassed its total from last season (in 36 races), and its total from the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined. It’s on pace for its first double-digit win season since 2014 (13) and the team record of 18 in 2007 is in play.
Hendrick also enters Pocono on a five-race win streak, the longest by a team since Hendrick won five straight in 2014. Hendrick (who else?) had a six-race win streak in 2007.
The big wins for Hendrick were at the Circuit of the Americas (Chase Elliott) and Charlotte (Kyle Larson), the 268th and 269th wins in team history. The first tied Petty Enterprises’ record for most by a Cup Series team, and the second broke that record.
Petty Enterprises had held that wins record since 1960, even though its last win came courtesy of John Andretti — another great last name in motorsports lore — in 1999.
Hendrick’s 270th win, at Sonoma, came with Larson beating Elliott to the line. It was the fourth straight 1-2 finish for Hendrick, tying the record set by Carl Kiekhaefer’s team in 1956.
Larson comes to Pocono with six consecutive top-two finishes, the seventh different driver in series history to have a streak that long. He joins Richard Petty, David Pearson, Darrell Waltrip, Tim Flock, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick. Harvick was the last to have a streak of six-plus races, going eight straight over the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
Larson wasn’t the only driver hitting milestones for Hendrick in the first half.
Alex Bowman: 10 laps led in Richmond win was the second-fewest dating back to 1990 (Kevin Harvick: 3 in 2013)
Another milestone victory for Hendrick came with its 267th Cup win, this one at Dover, courtesy of Alex Bowman. What made that win notable was that Larson was second, Elliott third and Byron fourth. It was just the fourth 1-2-3-4 finish for a team in Cup Series history.
Before that, it happened in Dec. 1956 and April 1957 with DePaolo Engineering, both times with Fireball Roberts winning the race, with Paul Goldsmith, Curtis Turner, Ralph Moody and Marvin Panch filling out their scorecard.
Busch nears a record … that he can break in 2023
Last season, it took nearly the entire year for Kyle Busch to taste victory in the Cup Series, doing it in race 34 of the 36-race season. This season, he got there in race No. 11 at Kansas.
It was his 17th consecutive season with a win, tying David Pearson for the second-longest streak in series history. It trails only Richard Petty’s 18-year run from 1960-77 for Cup Series record.
There’s no reason to believe he can’t get there — he’ll just have to wait until 2023 to have sole possession of that record.
Brad Keselowski is the King of the Dramatic
Brad Keselowski winning at Talladega wasn’t a surprise; he has long established himself as one of the premier restrictor plate race drivers in series history.
The way he picked up the victory was more of a surprise, leading only lap 191 (of 188 scheduled laps, thanks to overtime) of the race and winning by about a tenth of a second.
That was Keselowski’s sixth career win with a last-lap pass, putting him one away from the series record (that we can tell — there are several races that don’t have lap-by-lap leaders).
What’s even more amazing is that Talladega was the third time that Keselowski won a race by leading in only the final lap. In Cup Series history, that has happened only 23 other times, with no other driver doing it more than once.
Variety is the spice of life
The Cup Series season started with seven different winners in seven races (and 10 winners in the first 11 races). Going back to the start of the Modern Era in 1972, it’s just the fifth time that a season has started with that many different winners in a row. The only seasons with more were in 2000 (10) and 2003 (9).
And that’s without a pair of the dominant drivers from 2020, Denny Hamlin and Harvick, winning a race yet this season.
The first four winners of the season — Michael McDowell, Christopher Bell, Byron and Larson — combined to win just once all of last season. And none of them finished better than 14th in points. It was the first time since 1986 that the first four winners of a season each had fewer than 10 career wins at that time of their victory.
Those wins by McDowell and Bell were the first of their Cup careers (and Byron’s was just his second win). The only other times in Cup Series history the first two races of a season were won by first-time winners came in 1949 and 1950 — the first two seasons in Cup Series history.
More on McDowell, whose upset win in the Daytona 500 remains one of the best stories in recent memory: He won in his 358th career start; the only other driver in series history with that many starts prior to getting his first win was Michael Waltrip, who won the 2001 Daytona 500 in his 463rd start.
Hamlin still seeking first win
With all the variety in Victory Lane, one driver we haven’t seen win yet is Hamlin, who won seven times last year. But it’s not like Hamlin hasn’t been successful.
Hamlin started the year with eight top-five finishes in the first nine races, the first driver to start a season off like that since Dale Earnhardt in his storied 1987 season. Except “The Intimidator” won six of the first nine races that year.
Hamlin’s year also started with a fifth-place finish at Daytona, after leading 98 laps. The last five drivers to lead at least that many in the Daytona 500 failed to win. The last driver to lead that many and win? Earnhardt, in 1998.
New track … who dis?
For those who wanted to see more variety in the NASCAR schedule, 2021 has been the season for you.
We had the first dirt track race since Sept. 30, 1970. A mere 18,443 days between dirt track races.
We’ve had road course races at Daytona, Austin and Sonoma, with four more to come. Seven road course races crushes the record for most in a season, which was four in the 1957 and 1964 seasons.
There have been first Cup races at Nashville, Circuit of the Americas (Austin) and the Bristol Dirt Track. The Indianapolis Road Course will host its first later this year. The last time we had at least three new venues debut in a season was 1969, when we got inaugural races at Michigan, Kingsport, Dover, Talladega and Texas World Speedway.
MLB free agency and trade grades: Grading the veteran trade between the Mariners, Brewers
The 2022-23 MLB offseason is underway, and we’ve got you covered with grades and analysis for every major signing and trade this winter.
Whether it’s a nine-figure free agent deal that changes the course of your team’s future or a blockbuster trade that has the whole league buzzing, we’ll weigh in with what the deal means for all involved for 2023 and beyond.
Follow along as our experts evaluate and grade each move, with the most recent grades at the top. This piece will continue to be updated, so turn back for the freshest analysis from the beginning of the hot stove season through the start of spring training.
Inside the one-year makeover of Lincoln Riley’s USC
INSIDE THE TRAINING complex named after head coach John McKay on USC‘s campus, there’s a whiteboard that has become more than just the backdrop of a classroom. Earlier this year, as players came together to begin spring ball for a team that looked completely different than the season prior, the whiteboard served as a catch-all for what USC players and coaches believed needed to change for a program that had just gone 4-8 to have any semblance of success.
“We all talked about creating a standard when we got here,” linebacker Shane Lee, who transferred from Alabama and became a team captain, said of what writing on the whiteboard signified. “That set the tone for everything we do. It’s been the foundation for our success.”
While Lee said that what is written on the board can be summed up by one phrase at the bottom that Riley has coined and has even found its way onto some T-shirts — “Win the inner battles” — what’s on the board has been almost secondary to the fact that players actually executed it. As Lee put it, it’s something they have been able to refer back to throughout what has been a dreamlike season.
It has been just over a year since the hire of Riley sparked a new beginning for USC, and though the outlook for the program seemed to go from bleak to bright overnight, perhaps no one outside the McKay Center expected success at USC to come this quickly. The Trojans completed an 11-1 regular season with a chance to not only win a Pac-12 title on Friday night against the only team that beat them this season, but also to give the program its first College Football Playoff appearance.
“I can’t say yes, I knew this was going to happen, but at the same time, I don’t believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish, especially if you get the right people in the building,” Riley said. “I told you what our expectations were from Day 1. A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that’s fine. People within the walls knew what we were about and had a sense of what we were building.”
Riley’s arrival had its gravitational pull, bringing talented transfers from all corners of the country and keeping players at USC who wanted to have their careers reignited. But in a sport where much is made of the power of coaches, the Trojans’ success this season required a collective mindset that had been missing, one that could not be engineered by a single coach. For Lee, it can be summed up by a whiteboard, but for quarterback Caleb Williams, it is rooted in a phrase he has been repeating all season.
“Good teams are led by coaches,” Williams said again this week. “But great teams are led by players. … That was one of the main things we focused on when we got here — our players leading.”
Nobody led USC last season. And while the rapid turnaround the program has experienced can be traced back to the hire of Riley and his moves since, what has transpired over the past 12 months to bring USC back into national relevancy has been a product of a shared confidence that originated not from a single hire or addition, but from a holistic approach and a trust in a roster that has been mended together more than it has been built.
“I don’t know what games we expected to lose, and that’s just the really honest evaluation,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “We expected to swing the bat and have success. That’s why we came out here.”
ANDREW VORHEES REMEMBERS being nervous. The senior offensive lineman as well as the rest of USC’s incumbent players were in a unique position. Their future head coach had been hired with plenty of pomp and circumstance, yet, they still had to play one more game. Due to a postponed game against Cal that had been rescheduled for the week after the season finale, USC had to suit up for a meaningless game that somehow had become meaningful. It was a rehearsal of sorts for an audience of one.
“You hear about him, you watch him on TV, and then he gets out here, and he’s just human like the rest of us,” Vorhees said. “It was just one of the most surreal moments, knowing that [Riley] was going to be the head coach.”
The week leading up to and including the game had given Riley and his coaching staff an opportunity to evaluate what they had to work with and make decisions. After the game, they wasted no time. In the span of a week and following many conversations, Vorhees and a few of his peers who had a chance to leave for the draft, including Brett Neilon, knew a return to USC was worth it.
“With a coach like [Riley], you never know what can happen,” Vorhees said.
Among returning players, there seemed to be a hunger for structure and leadership, which Riley immediately brought. The former came with the experience of running a top-level college football program. But the latter could only truly take hold in the form of the players themselves, especially those who had been there a few years.
Words like accountability, consistency and leadership always find their way into the lexicon of football teams that perform well. Chemistry does, too, and USC was faced with the task of creating just that with more than 40 transfers and a slew of Trojans who had made it through a season that had not included any of those aforementioned qualities. It’s why keeping those players whose talent had maybe been underutilized was key in bridging the gap from past to future.
“I think it sent a message to the entire roster about how serious these guys were,” Riley said of the veteran linemen like Vorhees returning. “I probably didn’t realize how big that was at that time, but that was important. it was a tone setter.”
Riley’s influence soon seeped into every part of the program. Only one coach from the previous regime was retained, and there was plenty of additional staff turnover as well. A typical program overhaul on the field usually takes time. But in this day and age, with the advent of the transfer portal, nothing is a better accelerator than talent.
After Riley recruited and signed players from the portal, the task then was to turn theory into practice and talent into wins. From star transfer wide receiver Jordan Addison to transfer linebacker Eric Gentry to redshirt senior lineman Justin Dedich, there had to be an immediate buy in.
But Riley’s words and practices could do only so much. For his rapid experiment to take shape, he needed the closest thing to a version of him on the field to usher not just his offensive system, but also provide the leadership required of a player at the most important position in football, win or lose. It just so happens that person was a then-19-year-old quarterback who is now on the brink of winning the Heisman Trophy.
WILLIAMS WENT THROUGH the gamut of emotions on that mid-October night in Salt Lake City. Just after USC was unable to complete a last-second drive to beat Utah and stay undefeated, tears ran down his face while he was on the field. The agony of defeat gave way to frustration about the fact that, in his mind, USC should not have lost that game. Upon entering the locker room, Williams found kindred spirits; players were upset, but they were also strangely hopeful. Scowls soon turned into near smiles.
“The vibe inside the room was completely different from times when I’ve lost before in college so far. … It was more of a positive vibe,” Williams said this past week. By the time Williams spoke to the media that night, that agony seemed to be replaced by eagerness. “We aren’t going to go undefeated,” Williams said then. “But that’s not the be all end all of this season.”
That locker room scene has become a bit of lore in the story of this year’s USC team. Every player seems to recall the outsized effect it had on the team. Some have described it as a wake-up call, others as a moment that solidified their collective vision, and some even saw it as a clear view of the potential the team had. Winning the rest of their games didn’t just feel necessary. To them, it felt possible.
“If you try to change some things and you win games, everybody’s happy,” Riley said. “So you wonder, all right, you lose a tough game like that on the road in the fashion that we did right there at the last second. Is everybody really gonna stick to this now? The mood, the vibe in that locker [was] disappointed but, but not defeated at all and even maybe more inspired.”
“We were already bought in,” offensive lineman Justin Dedich said. “But I think it just unified us more. That loss helped, it gave us a new experience.”
“A great story or a great book can’t be written without some adversity,” Williams said.
Storybook or not, the way USC has responded since that game has validated those locker room anecdotes. And now, they have earned a chance to make up for it by playing that same Utah team for the conference title and a spot in the playoffs just over 365 days after this entire experiment began.
After that Utah loss, Riley made a point to mention that USC could still accomplish its goals if it kept winning. Not only has that happened exactly in that way, but it has also kept the attention on the immediate future instead of the past. If USC had put together a 9-3 season and wasn’t playing for a conference title or a spot in the playoff, there might be more time to reminisce. Instead, there are more important things to spend mental real estate on at this moment for Riley and Co. than to dwell on how USC’s reality has matched their expectations.
“When you do sit back for a second and, and think about, where we were a year ago and some of the things that have transpired for this team and the program during the time,” Riley said. “It’s, it’s fun to think about, but it’s just not the time and place right now.”
USC is still trying to live week to week, day to day, game to game. There’s no two- or five-year plan to worry about because, improbably, the time is now.
“This is why we came here, to get an opportunity to play in games like this,” Riley said. “We get to do it here in Year 1.”
Riley has talked often about what he’s trying to “build” at USC. In the past, that kind of process in college football has usually required patience and time. Yet what he and the rest of the program have shown this season is that maybe it doesn’t. In the sport’s current structure, this kind of quick turnaround is within reach.
But as USC sits one win away from the College Football Playoff a season after losing eight games, what it has also shown is that even if this is possible, not everyone can do it.
Gators’ Kitna leaves jail as details of case emerge
Judge Meshon Rawls set the bond and as conditions for Kitna’s release ordered him not to have any unsupervised contact with minors and not to have any internet access. Kitna sobbed into his hands when his parents, including former NFL quarterback Jon Kitna, addressed the court during a 75-minute appearance. Jalen Kitna was at the Alachua County Jail and on a closed-circuit feed when Jon and Jennifer Kitna stepped to a podium in the courtroom and promised they would supervise their 19-year-old son back home in Burleson, Texas.
Jon Kitna tapped his feet repeatedly and held hands with Jennifer throughout their son’s first court appearance. Jalen Kitna donned a green smock — different from the striped pants and tops other inmates wear — typically given to those being kept under close watch because of concerns about their welfare. His booking photo showed him in normal jailhouse attire.
“He’s got a great family. He’s got good family support. He’s going to be well taken care of,” one of Kitna’s attorneys, Caleb Kenyon, said outside the courthouse.
The Gainesville Police Department released Kitna’s arrest report Thursday, providing graphic details about the complaints filed against the now-suspended football player.
The investigation began in June with a tip from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children into images of child pornography being shared on the social media platform Discord. The investigation led authorities to Kitna.
One of the images shared by Kitna was of a prepubescent girl being sexually abused by a man. The phrase “so young junior” was written on that picture, and another of a pubescent girl. Kitna told a detective he thought the pictures were legal because he found them online.
When police searched Kitna’s phone, they found three more images of two nude pubescent girls in the shower, according to the report. Those three images were saved to his cellphone last December, police said. The report did not estimate the ages of the girls.
Kenyon, the attorney, argued that Kitna should be released with no monetary bond and suggested that those three images could be considered child erotica instead of child porn.
Kitna also told police he had been in other messaging groups on at least one other social media platform that distributed similar material, according to the arrest report.
Discord had previously deactivated Kitna’s account because of a violation of the terms of service, police said.
“Discord has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual abuse, which does not have a place on our platform or anywhere in society,” a Discord spokesperson said in a statement released to The Associated Press. “We work relentlessly to find and remove this abhorrent content and take action including banning the users responsible and engaging with the proper authorities.”
Two of the five arresting charges, which still need to be formalized by the state attorney’s office, are second-degree felonies that could result in a prison term of up to 15 years and a fine of up to $10,000. The other three are third-degree felonies.
Kitna also is being represented by Gainesville attorney Ron Kozlowski as well as noted Jacksonville attorney Hank Coxe, who has a history of taking on cases involving high-profile athletes.
Kitna appeared in four games as a redshirt freshman for the Gators this season. He completed 10 of his 14 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown.
Jon Kitna played 14 seasons in the NFL with Seattle, Cincinnati, Detroit and Dallas. He started 124 games and now is a high school coach in Burleson, just south of Fort Worth.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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