FORT WORTH, Texas — Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity playoffs by becoming the first driver in 39 years to win four races in a row, going to Victory Lane at Texas Motor Speedway on Saturday after being just in front of a massive wreck that took out three playoff contenders.
“What a way to start off the playoffs on a high note,” Gragson said. “Just very excited, and very confident right now.”
The victory for Gragson in the No. 9 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports locked up the first spot in the round of eight, with two more races to determine the other seven drivers that will advance with him. The Xfinity playoffs begin with 12 drivers, instead of 16 like the Cup Series, so its postseason is one round shorter.
The top six finishers were all playoff contenders with Austin Hill the runner-up in his Chevy and a spot ahead of Ty Gibbs, who came back from the back of the field after after having to start there because of unapproved adjustments on the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Stage two winner AJ Allmendinger, Riley Herbst and JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry rounded out the top six.
Sam Ard is the only other series driver to win four consecutive races. He did it in 1983, the second year of the NASCAR’s second-level circuit, while winning five of the last six races in the season that he had 10 wins overall.
It was the seventh win for Gragson, who had already had the single-season record for most wins by a JR Motorsports driver. He has 12 career victories, and next year is moving into the No. 42 for Petty GMS in the Cup Series.
“The wins are cool, but really for me it’s the memories we’re making with the people,” Gragson said. “It’s kind of sad it’s coming to an end. I love everybody over there. … Good time to be making memories.”
Gragson was out in front on a restart with 84 laps left, and it was virtually four-wide coming out of Turn 1 into the corner, with Sheldon Creed low on the inside of the leader, and his JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier and John Hunter Nemechek on the outside.
Nemechek, the winner at Texas last fall but not in playoff contention, got loose and collected Allgaier to start a chain-reaction wreck. Defending Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, the stage one winner, and polesitter Brandon Jones were the other playoff drivers that got caught up in the fracas.
“I was three-wide at the top being able to be in the race and I think we ended up four-wide at one point which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack,” Nemechek said. “I thought we were going to have a shot to win the race and repeat from last year. It didn’t work out.”
Jones felt Nemechek, his teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, may have pushed too hard there.
“Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far,” Jones said. “It is what it is.”
Gragson led a race-high 85 of the 200 laps at the 1 1/2-mile track. Nemechek was in front 60 laps, and Allmendinger 34.
Allmendinger is second in the playoff standings, 47 points behind Gragson. Gibbs, Hill, Berry, Allgaier, Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg round out the top eight. Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Jeremy Clements are outside the top eight.
Buckeyes great Laurinaitis joins Ohio State staff
Ohio State is adding James Laurinaitis, one of the most decorated defensive players in program history, to its coaching staff as a defensive graduate assistant for the 2023 college football season.
Laurinaitis, a former Buckeyes linebacker, is one of only eight players in team history to earn All-America honors three times. A two-time captain, he won the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defensive player and the Butkus Award as the top linebacker in college football. Laurinaitis spent the 2022 season as a graduate assistant at Notre Dame, working under his former Ohio State teammate Marcus Freeman.
The 36-year-old will work primarily with Ohio State’s linebackers. He twice earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors and was a second-round pick in the 2009 NFL draft. Laurinaitis became the then-St. Louis Rams’ all-time leading tackler with 852 stops in seven years. He retired from the NFL after the 2016 season with New Orleans.
“I am thrilled for our program and especially for our current and future Buckeyes who will benefit so much from having James on staff,” coach Ryan Day said in a statement. “James is a terrific young man with wisdom as a Buckeye and experience as an eight-year NFL veteran. He is going to be a very important part of our program going forward.”
Laurinaitis played at Ohio State alongside Brian Hartline, whom Day recently promoted to offensive coordinator
Spartans making deals in fracas vs. Wolverines
ANN ARBOR, Mich. — At least four more Michigan State football players facing misdemeanor charges for a skirmish inside the Michigan Stadium tunnel will likely have their cases dismissed in exchange for community service and other conditions, lawyers said Friday.
“It’s going to happen outside of court,” said Max Manoogian, an attorney for Angelo Grose. “There is going to be no criminal responsibility whatsoever. There are no admissions being made, no pleas being tendered.”
Seven players were charged, though only one, Khary Crump, faced a felony. That charge was dropped in early January in exchange for a guilty plea to a misdemeanor. His record will be scrubbed clean if he stays out of trouble while on probation.
“Participants work with a case manager to create and successfully complete a plan for accountability. Upon completion of that plan, charges are dismissed,” said Victoria Burton-Harris, chief assistant prosecutor in Washtenaw County.
Manoogian predicted charges would be dismissed in six months.
“They’re going to do some good work in the community, do a little bit of philanthropic work, jump through a couple of hoops and the prosecutor’s going to dismiss the case on their own,” he said.
NHL Power Rankings: Projecting playoff chances for all 32 teams
The 2023 NHL All-Star Game is on tap next weekend, and once the break is over, the volume of trades should really start heating up as teams fall into the “playoff contender” and “there’s always next year” cohorts.
As of this point, there are no teams that have clinched a playoff spot, and no team is mathematically eliminated either. So let’s take a look at each team’s current playoff chances (per FiveThirtyEight), and identify what could go right or wrong to reverse that trend.
How we rank: A panel of ESPN hockey commentators, analysts, reporters and editors rates teams against one another — taking into account game results, injuries and upcoming schedule — and those results are tabulated to produce the list featured here.
Note: Previous ranking for each team refers to the most recent edition, published Jan. 20. Points percentages are through Thursday’s games.
Previous ranking: 1
Points percentage: 83.33%
Next seven days: @ FLA (Jan. 28), @ CAR (Jan. 29), @ TOR (Feb. 1)
Playoff chances: >99%. Boston should be offended their odds aren’t an even 100%. The Bruins are a postseason lock, and then some.
Previous ranking: 2
Points percentage: 72.34%
Next seven days: vs. SJ (Jan. 27), vs. BOS (Jan. 29), vs. LA (Jan. 31), @ BUF (Feb. 1)
Playoff chances: >99%. Carolina would have to face the mother of all rough patches to not make a fifth consecutive postseason appearance. And that’s saying a lot, considering the Hurricanes have weathered their share of adversity and keep coming out on top.
Previous ranking: 4
Points percentage: 68.75%
Next seven days: @ DAL (Jan. 27)
Playoff chances: 95%. New Jersey is tracking toward just its second playoff appearance in 10 years. An imminent fall off the rails is wildly unlikely, and the Devils project to be one of the must-watch clubs in what will be a talent-packed Eastern Conference field.
Previous ranking: 5
Points percentage: 69.39%
Next seven days: vs. OTT (Jan. 27), vs. WSH (Jan. 29), vs. BOS (Feb. 1)
Playoff chances: >99%. Toronto reaching 18-wheeler-off-a-cliff territory is all that could negate earning a playoff spot. How far the Leafs end up going in the postseason is a whole other calculation, of course.
Previous ranking: 3
Points percentage: 67.02%
Next seven days: vs. LA (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: >99%. Tampa Bay is a sure thing — at least to reach another postseason. The Lightning’s biggest potential for derailment (aside from compounding injuries) might be fatigue. Headlining the Stanley Cup Final three seasons in a row takes its toll. Is there load management in the future to safeguard against disappointment? Stay tuned.
Previous ranking: 7
Points percentage: 65.00%
Next seven days: vs. NJ (Jan. 27)
Playoff chances: 97%. Dallas has lost consecutive games in regulation only once since November, and just four times total this season. The Stars will carry that promise into a surefire postseason opportunity.
Previous ranking: 6
Points percentage: 63.00%
Next seven days: vs. PHI (Jan. 28), vs. STL (Jan. 30)
Playoff chances: 93%. Winnipeg should have no trouble staying on course to a well-deserved postseason slot. The Jets’ only potential stumbling block could be figuring out how to maximize the luxury of an (almost) healthy roster, without disrupting chemistry that’s taken them so far already.
Previous ranking: 9
Points percentage: 64.89%
Next seven days: vs. CGY (Jan. 27), vs. CBJ (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 93%. Seattle needs its goaltending to hold up. That’s it. Because there’s little else that could hold this high-powered Kraken crew back from their inaugural playoff showing.
Previous ranking: 10
Points percentage: 62.50%
Next seven days: vs. VGK (Jan. 27)
Playoff chances: 89%. New York is on thin ice in the ultracompetitive Metropolitan Division. Teams are breathing down their neck already, and to hold tight in the top three, GM Chris Drury can’t be shy about adding a player (or two) ahead of the trade deadline. That insurance would help prevent New York from slipping into wild-card territory.
Previous ranking: 8
Points percentage: 62.25%
Next seven days: @ NYR (Jan. 27), @ NYI (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 82%. Vegas needs its health. Injury troubles have pushed the Golden Knights off track before, and they’ve been an issue already throughout this season. Vegas squirrelling away wins early should protect their postseason potential, though — barring a further pileup of ailments to come.
Previous ranking: 14
Points percentage: 58.51%
Next seven days: vs. STL (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 93%. Colorado just recorded its longest win streak of the season — at six games — and looks increasingly like the reigning Stanley Cup champion we expected. And when the Avalanche are hitting their stride, there’s little doubt playoffs lay ahead.
Previous ranking: 12
Points percentage: 60.00%
Next seven days: @ FLA (Jan. 27), @ TB (Jan. 28), @ CAR (Jan. 31)
Playoff chances: 63%. Los Angeles can pump up their playoff outlook as buyers before trade deadline. The salary cap won’t make it easy, but the Kings’ adding another left-shot defenseman, bottom-six forward or even a depth goaltender would aid in holding off Edmonton or Calgary for the Pacific Division’s third seed.
Previous ranking: 11
Points percentage: 59.57%
Next seven days: vs. BUF (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 81%. Minnesota must fear a surging Avalanche (and really, who doesn’t?) The Central was suffocating enough, and now that Colorado is climbing, the Wild have to keep pace or risk duking it out for a wild-card berth into the postseason.
Previous ranking: 13
Points percentage: 59.18%
Next seven days: vs. CHI (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 86%. Edmonton has racked up wins lately thanks to overall improved play, from forward balance to strong special teams to dialed-in defense. The Oilers can’t rest on their laurels or revert back to bad habits like leaning too heavily on its stars. Edmonton’s postseason hopes — and success — depend on being more multi-dimensional than that.
Previous ranking: 16
Points percentage: 59.38%
Next seven days: vs. SJ (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 75%. Pittsburgh looked poised, at one point, to be a powerhouse. Currently, they barely hold a playoff spot. The Penguins can improve their odds by adding forward depth ahead of the deadline, and hoping certain defensive stalwarts — including Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin — can keep flourishing.
Previous ranking: 18
Points percentage: 56.12%
Next seven days: @ SEA (Jan. 27)
Playoff chances: 56%. Calgary must find its identity. It’s not all the way locked in yet. To make the postseason, Calgary has to execute like a playoff-caliber team. But putting on a full 60-minute effort might be the easy part. The Flames’ challenge is to keep coming together, decide what they really are and lean into it.
Previous ranking: 15
Points percentage: 56.86%
Next seven days: @ TOR (Jan. 29), @ CBJ (Jan. 31)
Playoff chances: 59%. Washington is in that middle-of-the-pack position that makes a pre-trade-deadline move imperative. The Capitals need to target blue-line help. John Carlson is hurt now, and if there’s an opportunity to bolster the back end sooner than later, Washington could boost its postseason positioning that much faster.
Previous ranking: 20
Points percentage: 57.29%
Next seven days: @ MIN (Jan. 28), vs. CAR (Feb. 1)
Playoff chances: 35%. Buffalo is at a crossroads: Are they a young team standing pat until next season, or is a playoff push now in their sights? Because the opportunity to swing big is there. The Sabres’ best chance of a springtime berth involves adding defensive depth, possibly targeting an impactful bottom-six forward, continued excellence from its top-six group and consistent goaltending. Buffalo has surprised all season; what else is up its sleeve?
Previous ranking: 17
Points percentage: 56.25%
Next seven days: No games
Playoff chances: 43%. Nashville longs for consistency. Juuse Saros is playing well in net (.920 save percentage) and the Predators have improved offensively since Christmas into a top-15 goal-scoring team. To extend its second-half potential into a postseason shot, Nashville has to get consistent scoring every game.
Previous ranking: 22
Points percentage: 52.00%
Next seven days: vs. LA (Jan. 27), vs. BOS (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 30%. Florida needed better goaltending to turn its season around. Now, the Panthers just need healthy goaltenders. Sergei Bobrovsky was sidelined last week with a lower-body issue and Spencer Knight is just back from injury himself. Alex Lyon has been there to help, but Florida has simply got to give its goalie — whoever that is — all the support it can up front to have a shot at playoffs.
Previous ranking: 23
Points percentage: 53.19%
Next seven days: @ NYI (Jan. 27)
Playoff chances: 4%. Detroit showed some serious early-season promise, and they’re still an above-.500 team. If the Red Wings can start scoring again, and if Ville Husso can get some help, and if Detroit can tighten up defensively … maybe they find a way back to what worked before. If not, the Red Wings could be looking for a golden draft lottery ticket.
Previous ranking: 19
Points percentage: 51.00%
Next seven days: vs. DET (Jan. 27), vs. VGK (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 13%. New York has been in an offensive drought since mid-December. If that doesn’t change fast, and the Islanders still hold postseason aspirations, then GM Lou Lamoriello must target forward help on the trade market. And then hope that kick-starts better performances from within.
Previous ranking: 21
Points percentage: 50.00%
Next seven days: @ COL (Jan. 28), @ WPG (Jan. 30)
Playoff chances: 12%. St. Louis’ best chance of a postseason push is keeping all of its best players — including an eventually healthy Vladimir Tarasenko and Ryan O’Reilly — in the fold. And potentially being buyers instead of sellers ahead of the trade deadline. And then going on a magical win-almost-every-night kind of run. So yeah, it would be a lot.
Previous ranking: 24
Points percentage: 49.00%
Next seven days: @ WPG (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: 1%. Philadelphia not being the worst team in their division is a (relative) achievement. There’s always next year to — maybe — get back in the playoff mix.
Previous ranking: 25
Points percentage: 47.87%
Next seven days: @ TOR (Jan. 27), vs. MTL (Jan. 28), @ MTL (Jan. 31)
Playoff chances: 1%. Ottawa rallied to overcome a slow start with its 12-5-2 run through late fall. Since then, the Senators have simply fallen. Would getting — and staying — fully healthy have kept Ottawa’s previous momentum and playoff hopes alive? A question that will linger into the planning for next season.
Previous ranking: 28
Points percentage: 38.78%
Next seven days: @ CAR (Jan. 27), @ PIT (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. San Jose won’t be appearing in the postseason. But the Sharks could emerge as big winners at the trade deadline by moving marquee players like Timo Meier and Erik Karlsson in deals that set San Jose up for long-term success in the future. A fine consolation prize.
Previous ranking: 27
Points percentage: 44.90%
Next seven days: @ OTT (Jan. 28), vs. OTT (Jan. 31)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. Montreal losing Cole Caufield for the rest of the season was the end of any lingering postseason dreams. No matter. The Canadiens have a young core and plenty of potential playoff opportunities in their future.
Previous ranking: 26
Points percentage: 42.71%
Next seven days: vs. CBJ (Jan. 27)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. Vancouver responded surprisingly well to a coaching change last season. Can they do it again? Last season, the Canucks went from last in the Pacific to missing the playoffs by two points after Bruce Boudreau slid behind the bench. Rick Tocchet would be some sort of magician to coax an even better run out of Vancouver now … but hey, anything is possible.
Previous ranking: 29
Points percentage: 37.76%
Next seven days: @ ANA (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. Arizona won’t parlay great performances from the likes of Karel Vejmelka and Clayton Keller into playoff games right now. But there are still a couple more years of possibility that Mullet Arena will host an NHL playoff tilt. And that’s fun to think about!
Previous ranking: 30
Points percentage: 36.17%
Next seven days: @ EDM (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. Chicago is “Bound for Bedard” — as was their plan. The Blackhawks can help the cause by finding trade partners for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and really embracing the franchise’s future direction.
Previous ranking: 32
Points percentage: 35.71%
Next seven days: vs. ARI (Jan. 28)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. Anaheim can see the big picture here. Playoffs are out, clearly. But the Ducks have cap space to spare, a trade deadline looming to start the healing — er, improving — process and great odds in the Connor Bedard sweepstakes. And those are the odds that really matter for Anaheim.
Previous ranking: 31
Points percentage: 34.38%
Next seven days: @ VAN (Jan. 27), @ SEA (Jan. 28), vs. WSH (Jan. 31)
Playoff chances: less than 1%. Columbus has yet to win consecutive games in regulation this season, so the playoffs will remain something of a pipe dream.
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