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►  Column: Larson’s bad break changes NASCAR’s playoff picture

Kyle Larson felt a cylinder drop, and then his engine failed. With a puff of smoke, his season was essentially ended and the playoffs took on a completely different look.

Martin Truex Jr. is the favorite to win NASCAR’s championship, but if one driver had shown this season that he can beat Truex, it was Larson. He has been the best of the non-Toyota drivers this season, and if he could have made it to NASCAR’s finale, he’d have had a head-to-head shot at stopping Truex.

But making it through NASCAR’s elimination rounds is a whole lot harder than it looks on paper, and Larson was the surprise victim Sunday at Kansas Speedway. He was at a loss for words after the engine failure.

“I keep saying everything sucks. I don’t really know how to answer these (questions) because it’s the same answer for every question,“ he said. “Either way you go about it, it stinks. A part of me, I guess, will maybe be thankful that it wasn’t on my doing.“

No, it wasn’t his doing, it was a broken part that changed these playoffs. Just one of them racing deals.

It was heartbreaking for the entire Chip Ganassi Racing organization, which landed both of its cars in the playoffs for the second consecutive year. Both Larson and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in the first round last season, but this season the team had every reason to believe Larson would be racing for the title at Homestead next month.

His four victories are tied with Kyle Busch (like Truex, a Toyota driver) for second in the Cup Series. But now Larson is out of the picture — McMurray was eliminated Sunday, too – and Truex’s path got a little easier.

Truex’s coronation is not automatic, but here’s what he’s up against:

— Jimmie Johnson: The reigning champion slid into the third round of the playoffs despite a pair of spins at Kansas. He also brought along teammate Chase Elliott, who was fast the entire second round. That could mean that Hendrick Motorsports has locked in on something much the way it did this time last season. The series races Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is a nine-time winner and his victory there last October put him into the finale. Once he had his spot, that seventh championship became inevitable. As Truex racks up win after win, the Hendrick gang might quietly be moving Johnson closer to a record eighth title.

— Kyle Busch: The Toyotas are better than the Fords and the Chevrolets, and that’s just fact. Truex and Busch have combined to win five of the six playoff races so far, but Busch has not been dominant the way Truex has been with his Furniture Row Racing team. Although Joe Gibbs Racing is aligned with Furniture Row, the Colorado-based team has clearly outperformed the Gibbs camp. Matt Kenseth was eliminated at Kansas, so Gibbs only has Busch and Denny Hamlin still in the game. Of the two, Busch seems better positioned to compete with Truex.

— Brad Keselowski: He had very little time to celebrate his victory at Talladega, which moved him into the third round. That’s because the plan Paul Wolfe had mapped for these playoffs required Keselowski to win at Talladega as well as Martinsville. The Team Penske crew firmly believes they need this weekend to get them to Homestead, and if Keselowski can make the final four, then he’s got a shot.

Right now, this is Truex’s title to lose. His win Sunday was his seventh of the season and he leads nearly every statistical category. But, as Larson learned the hard way, bad breaks and bad luck can ruin an entire season.

“Freak things happen in every sport,“ Larson said. “In the new playoff format era, not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. We have been consistent and just now got bit.“

That bite knocked off a true title contender and opened the door for others. If someone can take down Truex, they earned it, too.


►  MEC Week 9 Preview & Matchups

Mountain East Conference football action returns this Saturday with six games on the docket. Fans can follow the games live at MountainEast.org, or watch online at MountainEast.tv.

On the heels of stopping Notre Dame’s six-game winning streak, West Virginia Wesleyan (4-4) welcomes the second-ranked Shepherd (7-0) who enters the game on a seven-game winning streak. The Bobcat defense will have to put together another outstanding performance to slow down a Rams offense that has been held to fewer than 30 points just once this season.

West Liberty (2-6) will try to halt its five-game losing streak as it returns home to take on Concord (2-6). The Hilltoppers were edged in overtime last week against West Virginia State despite Jeremiah Ortiz’s 179 yards rushing and the most points in a game by the Hilltoppers this season. Concord is coming off a non-conference win over UNC Pembroke that saw the Mountain Lions post a season-high 31 points. CU was able to manage the win despite being outgained and having fewer first downs than the Braves, in large part to three Zack Keaton field goals and a defensive touchdown by Jonathan Roebuck.

Notre Dame (6-2) will try to bounce back on the road at the University of Charleston (3-4). Despite rushing for 222 yards, the Falcons managed only 13 points in the loss to the Bobcats. Stopping the run has been UC’s strength this season as opponents haven’t had more than 100 yards rushing in a game since the first week of the season. In fact, after giving up 227 yards on the ground in week one, the Golden Eagles have only allowed 223 total rushing yards in the next six games combined.

After a three-game winning streak, Urbana (3-5) is now on a three-game losing skid as it welcomes Glenville State (3-5). The Blue Knights have slowed down a bit on offense scoring just 21 points in the last two games. The Pioneers have had five games decided by eight points or less this season and are 2-3 in those contests.

West Virginia State’s high-powered offense will take on the stingy Fairmont State defense at Duvall-Rosier Field on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets (5-3) now own the league’s second-longest winning streak at four with last week’s overtime win over West Liberty. For the Falcons (5-3), all but two games have come down to the wire, in large part to a defense that is holding teams to just 17.2 points per game.

UVa-Wise (4-4) will take on Virginia-Lynchburg in non-conference action this week. MEC teams are 4-2 in non-conference play (4-1 vs. NCAA Division II opponents).


Notebook

* The MEC continues to treat fans to close games on a weekly basis to close games. Last week, five of the six games were decided by 10 points or less, including a pair of overtime games. Through eight weeks of the season, 43 percent (20-of-46) of the games have been decided by a touchdown or less and 54 percent (25-of-46) have been decided by 10 points or less.

* The MEC had six different players with 100-yard rushing performances last week—the most since week five this year. The league has just one 300-yard passing performance in the last three weeks (Connor Jessop vs. West Liberty), and there has been just one 100-yard receiving performance (Marvelle Ross vs. Urbana).

* The initial NCAA Super Region 1 Rankings were released this week with Shepherd coming in at No. 3. Notre Dame was eighth. The top seven teams in the final rankings will be selected for the NCAA Playoffs. Super Region 1 teams are comprised of teams from the MEC, PSAC, G-MAC and Northeast 10.

* MEC teams are 25-17 at home this year, compared to 19-25 on the road. Last week saw Notre Dame and UVa-Wise suffer their first home losses of the season, while Charleston managed its first road win of 2017.


Saturday, October 28 #2 Shepherd (7-0, 7-0) at West Virginia Wesleyan | Noon | Buckhannon, WV

Notes: Shepherd has had 37 passing plays this season of 20 yards or more ... Jabre Lolley leads the league in rushing with 850 yards and also with rushing touchdowns with 10 ... Connor Jessop’s 27 touchdown passes are already seventh-most in league history (the MEC single season record is 36 set by Notre Dame’s Ray Russ) ... WVWC’s defense held Notre Dame to a season-low 13 points last week ... the Bobcats will have to slow down Shepherd’s offense that is averaging 46.3 ppg ... the Wesleyan defense and special teams have accounted for seven of the team’s 16 touchdowns this year ... Tra Jackson’s 106 yards rushing vs. NDC were the most by a Bobcat in a game since the first week in the season.


Concord (2-6, 1-6) at West Liberty (2-6, 2-6) | 1 p.m. | West Liberty, WV

Notes: After only forcing two turnovers in the previous three games, CU came up with three turnovers against UNC Pembroke ... Zack Keaton became the first Concord kicker with 10 or more points in a game since Andy Ellington against Urbana in 2014 ... Jamal Petty became the first 100-yard runner for the Mountain Lions since senior running back Nick Loftin in last year’s season opener versus West Liberty ... WLU’s Jeremiah Ortiz needs 233 rushing yards over his final three games to post the ninth 1,000-yard rushing season in school history ... WLU is 0-4 when a player has rushed for over 100 yards ... West Liberty’s last two games have been decided by a total of 10 points.


Notre Dame (6-2, 6-2) at Charleston (3-4, 3-4) | 1 p.m. | Charleston, WV

Notes: NDC quarterback Malik Grove has accounted for a touchdown in 30-straight games (every game in 2015, 2016 and 2017) ... the Falcons had their lowest output in points (13) and total offense (300) last week vs. West Virginia Wesleyan ... NDC has given up fewer than 21 points in each of the last five games ... UC QB Mason Olszweski is completing 71 percent of his passes this year and is also eighth in the league in rushing ... the Golden Eagles have four players ranked in the top 15 in the country in TFL (1st-Jalen Nelson, 2nd-Kahzin Daniels, John Cominsky, 15th-James King) ... UC is looking for its first three-game winning streak since 2015.


Glenville State (3-5, 2-5) at Urbana (3-5, 2-5) | 1 p.m. | Urbana, Ohio

Notes: GSC didn’t surrender a touchdown in a loss to FSU last week ... the Pioneers last two losses have come by a combined nine points ... Javon Butler has five receiving touchdowns from 20 yards or longer ... Glenville State has been outscored 60-32 in the fourth quarter this season ... UU looks to end a three-game skid where it has been out-scored 144-61 … the Blue Knights hold a +3 turnover margin in wins and -6 turnover margin in losses … UU has the same number of sacks (15) in three wins as it does in five losses … UU ranks third in D2 in fumbles recovered (14), eighth in for sacks (3.6/gm) and ninth in tackles for loss (9.1/gm) … the next Blue Knight victory would be the highest win total since 2013.


West Virginia State (5-3, 4-3) at Fairmont State (5-3, 5-2)

Notes: Takwan Crews-Naylor made his first career start last week for Fairmont State and was 19-of-33 for 178 yards ... seven different players caught passes for the Falcons ... if FSU can win out, it would be just the fifth eight-win season since 1970 ... the Falcons continue to lead the league in scoring defense allowing just 17.3 ppg ... Sam Keil has as many field goals this year as extra points (15) ... three Falcons have three interceptions this year: Jerry Iweh, Michael Porter and Stephen Turner ... WVSU’s Calil Wilkins has rushed for a first down on 10 of his 11 attempts when given the ball on third down ... WVSU is second in the MEC in scoring averaging 38.2 ppg, but is giving up 34.8 ppg. 


UVa-Wise (4-4, 4-4) at Virginia-Lynchburg | 1 p.m. | Lynchburg, Va.

Sports News

The Free Press WV

►  MEC Announces Week 7 Football Honors

Malik Grove (Notre Dame), Aman Speed Jr. (West Virginia Wesleyan) and Tyler Fischer (West Virginia Wesleyan) have earned Mountain East Conference Player of the Week honors for their play in the seventh week of the season.

Grove, a senior from Cincinnati, Ohio, paced the NDC offense in a 45-7 win over Urbana. He threw for 229 yards and five touchdowns and added 83 more yards on the ground. He broke the school record with 8,882 yards of total offense and set a new NDC mark with 91 touchdowns accounted for.

Speed Jr., a sophmore from Baltimore, Md., was key in West Virginia Wesleyan’s 10-7 win over UVa-Wise. He scooped up a fumble and raced 41 yards for WVWC’s only touchdown in the game. He also recorded six tackles in the game, including a pair of sacks that totaled up 14 yards.

Fischer, a sophomore from Chalfont, Pa., had four key points in WVWC’s narrow win over UVa-Wise. He had a 36-yard field goal to start the game and also added an extra point in the win.


Other Top Performances

Offense: Ryan Feiss (SU) had seven catches for 97 yards a touchdown in a win over Fairmont State ... Jaylen McNair (GSC) had a 37-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter that lifted the Pioneers to a win over West Liberty ... Adam Fulton (CU) had three touchdown passes and 193 yards for the Mountain Lions ... Rodell Rahmaan (UU) had an 81-yard touchdown catch on the first play of the game against Notre Dame ... Laurence King (FSU) had four catches for 86 yards vs. No. 2 Shepherd ... Juawan Etheredge (WVSU) carried the ball 17 for 100 yards and two scores.

Defense: Myles Humphrey (SU) became the school’s all-time sack leader with two last week and also had eight stops in a win over Shepherd ... Earon Settles (GSC) had 12 tackles, including 1.5 tackles for a loss, in a win over Wets Liberty ... Duray Hall (UU) had a season-high 16 tackles against Notre Dame ... Naiquan Thomas (FSU) had seven tackles and scored on a 37-yard interception return against Shepherd.

Special Teams: Brandon Purk (UU) averaged 44.9 net average and had three punts of over 50 yards with three inside the 20 yard line ... Anton Vrebac (NDC) punted the ball eight times for an average of 41.0 yards with five inside the 20.


►  MEC Men’s Soccer: Falcons Sweep Soccer Honors

Notre Dame’s Leonardo Paiva is the Mountain East Conference Offensive Player of the Week, while teammate Daniele De Angelis is the league’s Defensive Player of the Week.

Paiva, a senior from Vitoria, Brazil, led the Falcons to a 2-0-0 week. He scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 win over Concord, and then scord both goals in a 2-0 win over Salem International. His scores pushed his total for 11 on the year.

De Angelis, a sophomore from Parma, Italy, notched a pair of shutouts to help Notre Dame to a 2-0-0 week. He stopped five shots in a win over Concord and then made six saves in a shutout victory over Salem International.


MEC Women’s Soccer: Mountain Lions Take Weekly Women Soccer Awards
Concord’s Courtney Wallace is the Mountain East Conference Offensive Player of the Week, while teammate Morgan Carmichael is the league’s Defensive Player of the Week.

Wallace, a freshman from Castleford, England, had five points in two games to help Concord to a pair of important conference wins last week. She tallied both goals in a win over Notre Dame, and then provided the game-winning assist as the Mountain Lions downed West Liberty 1-0 in double overtime.

Carmichael, a freshman from Fleming Island, Fla., led the Mountain Lions to a pair of wins last week. She contributed a pair of assists as Concord knocked off Notre Dame, and then helped lead the defensive effort as CU shut out West Liberty, 1-0, in double overtime.


►  MEC MBB: Cardinals Tabbed As Men’s Basketball Preseason Favorite

Wheeling Jesuit is the preseason favorite to win the 2018 Mountain East Conference men’s basketball championship after a vote conducted by the league’s coaches. The poll had five different teams receive first place votes.
The Cardinals finished atop the poll with 112 points and six first-place votes, just two points ahead of Fairmont State’s 110 points and two first-place votes. The Cardinals and Falcons played for the NCAA Atlantic Region title last year with FSU winning and going on to play for a national championship.

WJU returns a pair of All-MEC players in seniors Pat Moseh and Haywood Highsmith from last year’s team that went 25-8. Moseh averaged 16 points and six rebounds last year, while Highsmith averaged a double-double with 15.3 points and 10.8 rebounds. The Fighting Falcons bring back several key components from the team that went to the NCAA title game including Jason Jolly and D’Ondre Stockman, and get back Caleb Davis and R.J. Hutcherson who missed last season with injuries.

West Liberty, which will be led by All-American Dan Monteroso, was picked to finish third with 102 points and two first-place votes. Shepherd was fourth in the poll with 92 points and one first-place vote. The Rams return their top two scorers from a year ago in Steffen Davis and A.J. Carr. Notre Dame had the final first-place vote and finished in fifth in the poll with 86 points. All-American Will Vorhees, the nation’s second leading scorer last year with 26.8 points per game, is back for his senior season to lead the Falcons.

West Virginia Wesleyan was picked to finish sixth with 64 points, followed by Charleston (58), UVa-Wise (47) and Glenville State (46). Concord was picked 10th with 31 points, and West Virginia State (30) and Urbana (14) rounded out the poll.
The poll was released on Monday at the Mountain East Conference Media Day at the Bridgeport Conference Center in Bridgeport, WV.

The men’s basketball season begins on Friday, November 10.

2017 MEC Preseason Poll
1. Wheeling Jesuit (6) 112
2. Fairmont State (2) 110
3. West Liberty (2) 102
4. Shepherd (1) 92
5. Notre Dame (1) 86
6. West Virginia Wesleyan 64
7. Charleston 58
8. UVa-Wise 47
9. Glenville State 46
10. Concord 31
11. West Virginia State 30
12. Urbana 14
() Indicates first place votes
* Coaches not able to vote for own team


►  MEC WBB: Glenville State Picked To Win Women’s Basketball Title

Glenville State has been selected as the preseason favorite to win the 2018 Mountain East Conference women’s basketball championship in a vote conducted by the league’s coaches.
The Pioneers finished atop the poll with 120 points and 10 first-place votes. The Pioneers return eight players who averaged 20 minutes last season from a team that went 24-6 and won the MEC regular season title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Paris McLeod, the reigning league Player Of The Year, is back after averaging 18.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 3.9 steals per game. Courtney Davis, who nearly averaged a double-double with 9.9 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, returns in the post for GSC.
Wheeling Jesuit, the two-time defending MEC Tournament champions, was picked to finish second in the poll with 110 points and one first-place vote. The Cardinals dynamic backcourt duo of Mariah Callen and Monica Burns, along with Chenelle Moore in the frontcourt, will try to help the team to a third-straight NCAA Tournament appearance. West Virginia State, under the direction of second-year head coach Charles Marshall, was picked to finish third in the poll with 85 points and had the remaining first-place vote. The Yellow Jackets will be led by Aurreshae Hines who averaged 16.7 points and 5.3 assists and last year’s Freshman of the Year Sydney Bates (11.8 points per game in 2016-17).
Notre Dame was picked fourth with 75 points, followed by Charleston (71), Fairmont State (69), Shepherd (65) and West Liberty (62). West Virginia Wesleyan was tabbed ninth with 51 points, and UVa-Wise (43), Urbana (21) and Concord (20) rounded out the poll.

The poll was released on Monday at the Mountain East Conference Media Day at the Bridgeport Conference Center in Bridgeport, WV.

The women’s basketball season begins on Friday, November 10.

2017 MEC Preseason Poll
1. Glenville State (10) 120
2. Wheeling Jesuit (1) 110
3. West Virginia State (1) 85
4. Notre Dame 75
5. Charleston 71
6. Fairmont State 69
7. Shepherd 65
8. West Liberty 62
9. West Virginia Wesleyan 51
10. UVa-Wise 43
11. Urbana 21
12. Concord 20
() Indicates first place votes
* Coaches not able to vote for own team


►  Column: Talladega is too dicey to be in NASCAR’s playoffs

Here’s what went right at Talladega Superspeedway:

— It was a beautiful day with packed grandstands.

— Fans were treated to a sincere send-off to Dale Earnhardt Jr.

— NBC’s overnight television rating was the highest for this race since 2012, when it was aired on ESPN.

— Brad Keselowski used a last-lap pass to win Sunday and advance into the next round of the playoffs.

So, what’s the problem?

There were a lot of accidents in the race, contributing to almost 35 minutes of stoppage over three different red-flag periods. There were only 14 cars on the track at the checkered flag, and only four were playoff drivers. Two of them finished a lap down.

Sorry, that is not a playoff-quality event.

NASCAR did the right thing this season in moving Talladega into the middle of the second round of the playoffs so it would no longer be an elimination race. The event is too much of a crapshoot, and too many drivers have had their championship chances destroyed by some misfortune — often out of their hands — for the race to play such a pivotal role.

After Sunday, it could be argued that Talladega shouldn’t be in the playoffs at all.

No one is suggesting taking it off the schedule. Fans love restrictor-plate racing at Daytona and Talladega, and many thought Sunday was a great race. Maybe it was. But it wasn’t the kind of product that should be deciding a championship.

Chase Elliott could have won that race, same for Ryan Blaney, and each ended the day as spectators alongside their junked race cars. So, yeah, both sounded a little bitter about their results.

Blaney had won the second stage of the race to pick up valuable playoff points, and was for sure a contender.

“It’s all ruined now,“ said Blaney. “We had a really good day, and now it’s down the drain.“

The 12-driver playoff field will be cut by four after this Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, and all seven of the drivers at the bottom of the standings were involved in accidents at Talladega. That includes reigning series champion Jimmie Johnson, who was parked because his team worked on his damaged car during a red flag. He’s now on the cutline to advance out of Kansas.

Talladega produces dramatic racing that draws fans to their feet for the entire 500 miles. Look away and you might miss something. That’s great, and the four times a year that NASCAR puts the plates on, the customers generally leave satisfied.

But consider this: Keselowski overcame a broken antenna — a setback that not only hampered team communication but required a special pit stop to fix his radio — dodged all the accidents and then timed his pass for the lead perfectly to win. After, he credited luck, not skill, for his ability to “survive.“

Also, the victory was the fifth straight for a Ford driver at Talladega. It gave Fords a season sweep of the plate races, and since Denny Hamlin won the Daytona 500 in a Toyota in the 2016 season-opener, Fords have won seven consecutive plate races. Clearly Talladega is a race about horsepower, and engine builder Doug Yates is winning it right now.

Ryan Newman has been critical in the past about plate racing, but declined after Sunday’s runner-up finish to answer if it was a good race.

“That’s a matter of opinion,“ he said. “I mean, it is what it is. I don’t think it’s anything out of the ordinary or a big surprise for this type of racing. It’s totally different than what we had last week and what we’ll have next week. I don’t know that there’s a desire to have a different product here at this type of racetrack.“

Fair enough. Keep the racing as is, just keep it out of the playoffs. NASCAR doesn’t have a road course in the playoffs because it’s a novelty, something the Cup Series does just twice a year. Including it in the playoffs wouldn’t be fair because drivers don’t do it enough for it to be an accurate factor in determining the champion.

So why does Talladega get a pass? There’s too much at stake — for drivers, teams, the sport — for days like Sunday to be a factor in deciding a champion. NASCAR needs to find a new place on the schedule for Talladega.

Sports New

The Free Press WV

►  NFL Power Rankings – Week 1: It’s a scramble at the top after Patriots’ loss

Each week, Washington Post national NFL writer Mark Maske will provide his ranking of the league’s 32 teams.

After New England’s surprising defeat at the hands of the Chiefs on opening night in Foxborough, the top spot quickly became up for grabs.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (1-0). Preseason Rank: 2

The Steelers become the caretaker of the No. 1 spot with the Patriots’ temporary (it says here) setback. RB Le’Veon Bell was not particularly involved in the offense Sunday in Cleveland after his late arrival before the season, but that undoubtedly will change soon. Rookie LB T.J. Watt probably won’t play every Sunday like he’s about to add a fourth NFL defensive player of the year award to the family’s mantel. But he brings energy and passion and he should be a nice addition to the defense.

2. Atlanta Falcons (1-0). Preseason Rank: 3

The opening win over the Bears was probably more challenging than it needed to be, as the Falcons just held on at the end. Things get more interesting with Sunday night’s nationally televised matchup with the Packers in the first regular season game at the Falcons’ new stadium.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (1-0). Preseason Rank: 9

The offense was dynamic and the defense was solid during the upset Thursday night at New England. No one was calling QB Alex Smith merely a game manager, at least for one night, and WR Tyreek Hill and rookie RB Kareem Hunt were superb. The loss of safety Eric Berry to a season-ending torn Achilles’ tendon is significant. But it might be time to rethink the Chiefs’ potential to go deep into the AFC playoffs, provided that Coach Andy Reid allows the offense to keep this aggressive, attack-down-the-field approach.

4. Green Bay Packers (1-0). Preseason Rank: 4

The Packers will know very quickly this season how they match up against the NFC’s other top contenders. They beat the Seahawks on Sunday. They play in Atlanta this weekend and at Dallas on October 8.

5. Dallas Cowboys (1-0). Preseason Rank: 7

RB Ezekiel Elliott is in the lineup, perhaps all season, thanks to the injunction granted by a federal judge in Texas that keeps his six-game suspension on hold. With Elliott, the Cowboys are back to being the equal of anyone in the NFC. Elliott and QB Dak Prescott played well in the victory Sunday night over the Giants, and the performance of the remade defense was a pleasant surprise.

6. New England Patriots (0-1). Preseason Rank: 1

So much for a run at a 19-0 season. That didn’t provide much drama, did it? The defending champs were pretty dreadful in the loss to the Chiefs. The offense was out of sync and the defense gave up huge plays in the highest-scoring game ever against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team. But are you really going to wager against Belichick and QB Tom Brady getting things fixed? The strong suspicion here is that this will still be the team to beat entering the postseason.

7. Oakland Raiders (1-0). Preseason Rank: 5

Marshawn Lynch still has some good football left in him, it appears. That is a very good sign for the Raiders as they try to be an elite team.

8. Detroit Lions (1-0). Preseason Rank: 11

QB Matthew Stafford was unbothered by the expectations that come with his huge contract and with the interception for a TD that he threw on his first pass attempt Sunday. He rebounded to throw four TD passes in the Lions’ win over the Cardinals, picking up where he’d left off in 2016.

9. Seattle Seahawks (0-1). Preseason Rank: 6

If it is true that there are internal tensions based on Seattle’s defense feeling the offense hasn’t done its part, that was not helped by how Sunday’s defeat to the Packers unfolded.

10. Philadelphia Eagles (1-0). Preseason Rank: 14

QB Carson Wentz began his second NFL season with a mixed bag of brilliant improvisational plays and rookielike gaffes Sunday at FedEx Field. He did not get his big-name newcomers, RB LeGarrette Blount and WRs Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, consistently involved in the offense. But it was good enough for a season-opening win over the Redskins, thanks in large part to a defense that generated four turnovers.

11. Baltimore Ravens (1-0). Preseason Rank: 16

The defense was very good against the Bengals. It’s exactly what the Ravens envisioned when they spoke during the preseason about their infusion of young pass rushers and the depth and experience in their secondary. The running game was productive in Cincinnati but more will be needed at some point from QB Joe Flacco and the passing game.

12. Denver Broncos (1-0). Preseason Rank: 12

The Broncos nearly squandered a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter Monday night to the Chargers but just held on to win on a blocked field goal with one second left. Coach Vance Joseph got the victory in his NFL head coaching debut and QB Trevor Siemian played well enough to instill belief that he’s capable of getting the Broncos back into the playoffs.

13. New York Giants (0-1). Preseason Rank: 8

The offense simply is not good enough without WR Odell Beckham Jr., who was sidelined Sunday night by the ankle injury he suffered during the preseason. Minus Beckham, there is no playmaker who allows the offense to transcend the deficiencies of the offensive line. It is not all that difficult right now to envision the Eagles supplanting the Giants as the primary challenger to the Cowboys in the NFC East.

14. Carolina Panthers (1-0). Preseason Rank: 20

Cam Newton’s first real game back from shoulder surgery was pretty good. But the Panthers will probably need even better from Newton down the line if they’re going to return to contender status.

15. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-0). Preseason Rank: 25

The formula is clear for the Jaguars: Hand the football to rookie RB Leonard Fournette as often as possible, limit the chances for mistakes by QB Blake Bortles, and play defense. The pass rush won’t always be as productive as the 10-sack outing in the impressive opening victory over the Texans. But maybe, just maybe, the Jaguars can be better than anyone expected.

16. Los Angeles Rams (1-0). Preseason Rank: 27

Jared Goff looked like a franchise QB and the defense was overpowering against the Colts. Plenty of credit goes to Coach Sean McVay and defensive guru Wade Phillips. It’s only one game, of course, and the Luck-less Colts might be putrid. But it still signals considerable improvement by the Rams under their new regime. The defense should get even better with the return of DT Aaron Donald. McVay will see plenty of familiar faces when the Redskins visit L.A. this weekend.

17. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-0). Preseason Rank: 15

The Buccaneers had their opening game scheduled for this past Sunday in Miami postponed by Hurricane Irma, and now the NFL is beginning to consider whether this coming Sunday’s game in Tampa against the Bears can be played as scheduled.

18. Houston Texans (0-1). Preseason Rank: 10

The performance against the Jaguars was about as disappointing as it gets. Coach Bill O’Brien clearly needs to go to rookie Deshaun Watson as the starter at QB and, perhaps more importantly, the Texans must get holdout left tackle Duane Brown back on the field. The defense surely will play better. There is little time to sulk with a quick turnaround for Thursday night’s game at Cincinnati.

19. Minnesota Vikings (1-0). Preseason Rank: 23

Things went very well Monday night, with QB Sam Bradford throwing for 346 yards and three TDs and rookie RB Dalvin Cook providing 127 rushing yards in the win over the Saints. But after last year’s great start and subsequent unraveling, the Vikings are going to have to prove this season that they have some staying power.

20. Tennessee Titans (0-1). Preseason Rank: 18

Losing at home to a very good Raiders team is not a major transgression. But if the Titans are going to take the next step and be a formidable team, they’ll have to show that they can win at home against even tough opponents.

21. Miami Dolphins (0-0). Preseason Rank: 21

Playing 16 straight weeks after last Sunday’s postponement is not ideal for the Dolphins or the Buccaneers. But postponing the game, rather than playing it elsewhere, allowed players to be with their families. It was the proper move. Football-related competitive considerations should not take precedence at such times.

22. Los Angeles Chargers (0-1). Preseason Rank: 19

The Chargers made things very interesting with their fourth-quarter comeback Monday night in Denver but failed to force OT when their rookie kicker, Younghoe Koo, had a tying FG attempt blocked with one second left (after a successful kick didn’t count because of a Broncos timeout just before the snap). It was a determined effort in Coach Anthony Lynn’s first game but the Chargers were undone by their poor play in the first three quarters.

23. Cincinnati Bengals (0-1). Preseason Rank: 13

The shutout loss at home to the Ravens was not exactly the start the Bengals anticipated for what they hope will be a bounce-back season. QB Andy Dalton was particularly awful in a four-interception, five-sack showing. How long will he be allowed to continue to struggle like that before the Bengals would consider making a move to backup AJ McCarron?

24. Washington Redskins (0-1). Preseason Rank: 17

Kirk Cousins probably will put up some big numbers this season, and the bidders will line up for him if and when he becomes available. That will be justified in a league with so many QB-needy teams. But he still makes too many bad plays at the most inopportune times, such as the overthrow that produced a goal-line interception in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s loss to the Eagles.

25. New Orleans Saints (0-1). Preseason Rank: 26

The pairing of Adrian Peterson and the Saints is not off to a promising start, but no one should have expected too much, anyway. The defense could not stop Sam Bradford and the Vikings on Monday night. How do you think it will fare against Tom Brady and the irked Patriots on Sunday?

26. Buffalo Bills (1-0). Preseason Rank: 30

Of course the Bills are in first place in the AFC East. Did you expect anything else? But does beating the Jets really count?

27. Arizona Cardinals (0-1). Preseason Rank: 22

Things got pretty bad, pretty quickly for the Cardinals, with the come-from-ahead loss to the Lions as well as the possibly dislocated wrist suffered by RB David Johnson that could require surgery.

28. Indianapolis Colts (0-1). Preseason Rank: 24

Andrew Luck is to be sidelined for at least another game, and there’s little reason to believe the Colts can win without him. Scott Tolzien clearly is not the answer at QB. Perhaps the Colts should turn to Jacoby Brissett.

29. Chicago Bears (0-1). Preseason Rank: 28

Mike Glennon gave a decent performance Sunday against the Falcons, keeping the Bears competitive before failing to get them into the end zone for what would have been a winning TD in the final minute. But did the Bears hand out that contract for decent play at QB? And is decent play enough to keep rookie Mitchell Trubisky on the bench?

30. San Francisco 49ers (0-1). Preseason Rank: 29

It’s going to be a long, long first season in the Bay Area for the new regime of Coach Kyle Shanahan and GM John Lynch. It’s a necessary first step. But it won’t be much fun for anyone, most likely.

31. Cleveland Browns (0-1). Preseason Rank: 31

The Browns are improved. There’s little question about that. That, however, was a low bar to clear. Rookie QB DeShone Kizer showed some promise against the Steelers. But he and the Browns have plenty of distance to cover to reach respectability.

32. New York Jets (0-1). Preseason Rank: 32

For the tanking-the-season conspiracy theorists, it’s so far, so good.


►  Auto Racing

Monster Cup

TALES OF THE TURTLES 400

Site: Joliet, Illinois.

Schedule: Friday, practice, 9:30 a.m. (NBCSN), qualifying, 3:45 (NBCSN); Saturday, practice 8:30 a.m. (CNBC), practice, 11 a.m. (NBCSN); Sunday, race, NBCSN

Track: Chicagoland Speedway (oval, 1.5 miles).

Race distance: 400.5 miles, 267 laps

Last year: Martin Truex Jr. won in Chicago after starting sixth.

Last race: Kyle Larson picked up his second victory in four races in Richmond.

Fast facts: Truex heads into the playoffs as the favorite after a dominant regular season. Truex also won a pair of first-round races in 2016. . . . Kyle Larson, who finished ninth a year ago, is second. . . . Kyle Busch has been better at Chicagoland than any other playoff track, posting seven top 10s in 12 starts. . . . Jimmie Johnson, the champion last season, has just three top-10 finishes since winning in Dover in June.

Next race: ISM Connect 300, Sept. 24, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon, New Hampshire.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

Xfinity

CHICAGOLAND 300

Site: Joliet, Illinois.

Schedule: Friday, practice, 11 a.m. (NBCSN), practice, 1 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 9:35 a.m. (NBCSN), race, 12:30 p.m., NBCSN.

Track: Chicagoland Speedway

Race distance: 300 miles, 200 laps

Last year: Erik Jones held off Kyle Larson and Elliott Sadler to finish first.

Last race: Brad Keselowski won in Richmond.

Fast facts: This week’s race will lock in the last three drivers for the playoffs. . . . Elliott Sadler clinched the regular season title by finishing fifth last week. Sadler leads teammate William Byron by 95 points. . . . Kurt Busch and Erik Jones each had a loose lug nut in post-race inspection after Richmond. Their crew chiefs were fined $10,000 each.

Next race: Visitmyrtlebeach.com 300, Sept. 23, Kentucky Speedway, Sparta, Kentucky.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

 

Camping World Truck

CHICAGOLAND 225

Site: Joliet, Illinois.

Schedule: Thursday, practice, 12:30 & 3:30 p.m.; Friday, qualifying, 2:05 p.m. (FS1), race, 5:30, FS1.

Track: Chicagoland Speedway.

Race distance: 225 miles, 150 laps.

Last year: Kyle Busch led 95 of 151 laps for the win.

Last race: Austin Cindric won in Canada from the pole for his first career victory.

Fast facts: The field for the playoffs will be set following Friday’s race. Seven drivers have already clinched postseason spots, and one spot remains up for grabs. . . . Christopher Bell leads the series with four victories and 24 playoff points, and he can add 15 more playoff points if he clinches the regular season title this weekend. . . . John Hunter Nemechek is second after winning twice this season.

Next race: UNOH 175, Sept. 23, New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

IndyCar

GOPRO GRAND PRIX

Site: Sonoma

Schedule: Friday, practice, 10 a.m., practice, 2 p.m. (NBCSN); Saturday, practice, 11 a.m., qualifying, 3:30 p.m. (NBCSN); Sunday, race, 3:50 p.m. (NBCSN).

Track: Sonoma Raceway (road, 2.385 miles)

Race distance: 202.7 miles, 85 laps

Last year: Simon Pagenaud won the Sonoma race, clinching the series title in emphatic fashion.

Last race: Alexander Rossi won his second career race at Watkins Glen.

Fast facts: The 2017 season comes to a close in Sonoma. Josef Newgarden, in search of his first series title, leads Scott Dixon by just three points – the smallest difference between the top two ahead of the final event since 2007. . . . Newgarden has never finished in the top five at Sonoma, while Dixon won there in 2014 and 2015. . . . Helio Castroneves (22 points back) and Simon Pagenaud (34 points back) are third and fourth.

Online: http://www.indycar.com

Formula One

SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX

Site: Singapore

Schedule: Friday, 1:30 & 5:30 a.m.; Saturday, practice, 3 a.m., qualifying, 6 a.m.; Sunday, race, 5 a.m., NBCSN.

Track: Marina Bay Street Circuit (circuit, 3.44 miles).

Race distance: 192.8 miles, 56 laps

Last year: Nico Rosberg won his third consecutive race, leading 59 of 61 laps.

Last race: Lewis Hamilton won in Italy, his third victory in four events.

Fast facts: Thanks to his recent hot streak, Hamilton now leads Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari by three points. Hamilton has 238 points while Vettel has 235. Valtteri Bottas is third with 197 points. . . . Singapore hosted the first night race in Formula 1 history back in 2008.

Next race: Malaysia Grand Prix, Oct. 1, Sepang International Circuit, Kuala Lumpur.

Online: http://www.formula1.com

NHRA

CAROLINA NATIONALS

Site: Concord, North Carolina

Schedule: Friday, qualifying, 12:30 & 3 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 10:30 a.m. & 1 p.m.; Sunday, finals, 2:17 p.m.

Track: zMax Dragway.

Last year: Antron Brown took first outside of Charlotte.

Last race: Steve Torrence won the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

Fast facts: Torrence has seven victories and nine final-round appearances and is first in the point standings. He has a 20-point lead over Brown, the back-to-back world champion, after taking seven of the last 13 events. . . . Leah Pritchett, Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta are 30, 40 and 50 points off the lead respectively.

Next race: Dodge NHRA Nationals, Sept. 21-24, Maple Grove Raceway, Mohnton, Pennsylvania.

Online: http://www.nhra.com

Other races

WORLD OF OUTLAWS: Friday and Saturday, Wine Country Outlaw Showdown, Calistoga Speedway, Calistoga.

Online: http://www.woosprint.com/

Sports News

The Free Press WV

►  NASCAR punishes Gibbs, Hendrick, Penske

NASCAR suspended a slew of crew chiefs Wednesday for violations that included Denny Hamlin’s winning cars in his weekend sweep at Darlington, as well as loose lug nuts on Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s car.

Hamlin won both the Cup and Xfinity races in South Carolina, but NASCAR ruled that his cars violated rear suspension rules. Cup crew chief Mike Wheeler was suspended two races, fined $50,000 and Hamlin was stripped of five playoff points. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver will still make NASCAR’s playoff field, but he will likely be without Wheeler for at least one race.

Should Wheeler sit out Saturday night’s regular-season finale at Richmond, he would only miss the next week’s playoff opener at Chicago.

Earnhardt crew chief Greg Ives was suspended one race and fined $20,000 for two loose lug nuts found after the Cup race. Hendrick Motorsports said Travis Mack will replace Ives, who will not be able to crew chief Earnhardt in the driver’s final attempt to qualify for the playoffs.

Earnhardt needs to win at Richmond on Saturday to make the playoffs. He’s retiring at the end of the season and is currently 22nd in points.

Mack has been Earnhardt’s car chief since 2015 under Ives and had worked as a mechanic at Hendrick since 2004. He won a championship with Chase Elliott as the car chief at JR Motorsports’ Xfinity team from 2013-14.

“We have a tremendous amount of confidence in Travis and everyone on the team,“ Hendrick vice president of competition Jeff Andrews said. “Our people have done a great job all year with the lug nut rule. We won’t dwell on it (the penalty) and will look forward to having Greg back on the box next week at Chicagoland.“

In the Xfinity Series, Hamlin crew chief Eric Phillips was suspended two races and fined $25,000. Team Penske’s second-place car of Joey Logano also violated the suspension rule and his crew chief, Greg Erwin, was fined $25,000 and suspended two races.


►  This week in auto racing for Thursday, September 07, 2017

Monster Cup

FEDERATED AUTO PARTS 400

Site: Richmond, Virginia.

Schedule: Friday, practice, 7 a.m. and 9 a.m., (NBCSN), qualifying, 2:45 p.m. (NBCSN); Saturday, race, 4:30 p.m., NBCSN.

Track: Richmond Raceway (oval, 0.75 miles).

Race distance: 300 miles, 400 laps

Last year: Denny Hamlin won Richmond’s fall race from the pole.

Last race: Hamlin took first in Darlington.

Fast facts: Richmond is the final race of the regular season. Martin Truex Jr. clinched the regular season title last week in Darlington after winning two stages. . . . Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones are among the drivers that must win this weekend to earn a playoff spot. . . . Germain Racing recently announced that it had extended its contract with Ty Dillon.

Next race: Tales of the Turtles 400, Sept. 17, Chicagoland Speedway, Joliet, Illinois.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

 


Xfinity

VIRGINIA529 COLLEGE SAVINGS 250

Site: Richmond

Schedule: Friday, practice, 5 a.m., qualifying, 1:15 p.m., (NBCSN), race, 4:30 p.m., NBCSN.

Track: Richmond Raceway.

Race distance: 187.5 miles, 250 laps.

Last year: Kyle Busch won after starting seventh – one of 10 wins in just 17 series starts.

Last race: Hamlin swept the weekend’s events at Darlington.

Fast facts: William Byron is among six drivers who’ve clinched playoff spots. Byron has 17 playoff points, followed by Justin Allgaier with eight. . . . Elliott Sadler has a 91-point lead over Byron but has just five playoff points. Still, Sadler will almost certainly clinch the regular-season title on Friday.

Next race: Chicagoland 300, Sept. 16, Chicagoland Speedway.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

 


Camping World Truck

Last race: Austin Cindric took first in Bowmanville after spinning out Kaz Grala on the last lap.

Next race: Chicagoland 225, Sept. 15, Chicagoland Speedway.

Online: http://www.nascar.com


IndyCar

Last race: Alexander Rossi won both the pole and the race at Watkins Glen. It was Rossi’s second career victory.

Next race: GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, Sept. 17, Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma.

Online: http://www.indycar.com


Formula One

 

Last race: Lewis Hamilton won his second straight race in Italy and took over first place from Sebastian Vettel.

Next race: Singapore Grand Prix, Sept. 17, Marina Bay Street Circuit, Singapore.

Online: http://www.formula1.com


NHRA

Last race: Steve Torrence took first at the U.S. Nationals for the first time in his career.

Next race: Carolina Nationals, Sept. 15-17, zMAX Dragway, Concord, North Carolina.

Online: http://www.nhra.com


Other races

WORLD OF OUTLAWS: Friday and Saturday, Gold Cup Race of Champions, Silver Dollar Speedway, Chico, California.

Online: http://www.woosprint.com/

Sports News

The Free Press WV

►  This week in racing for Thursday, August 03, 2017

MONSTER CUP

I LOVE NEW YORK 355

Site: Watkins Glen, New York

Schedule: Saturday, practice, 7 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. (NBCSN); Sunday, qualifying, 9:05 a.m. (NBCSN), race, noon, NBCSN.

Track: Watkins Glen International (circuit, 2.45 miles)

Race distance: 220.5 miles, 90 laps.

Last year: Denny Hamlin held off Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski for the win.

Last race: Kyle Busch won from the pole in Pocono, his first victory of the season.

Fast facts: NASCAR announced this week that, starting next season, drivers with more than five years of Cup experience will be limited to seven races in the XFINITY series, down from the 10-race maximum set for 2017. . . . Cup drivers also will be limited to five races per season in the truck series. . . . Busch, Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were found with loose lug nuts following last week’s race.

Next race: Pure Michigan 400, August 13, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Michigan.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

 


XFINITY

ZIPPO 200

Site: Watkins Glen, New York.

Schedule: Friday, practice, 9 and 11:30 a.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 8:05 a.m. (NBCSN), race, 11 a.m., NBCSN.

Track: Watkins Glen International.

Race distance: 200.9 miles, 82 laps.

Last year: Logano won both the pole and the race at Watkins Glen.

Last race: Ryan Preece won his first career race at Iowa.

Fast facts: Preece was first and second in his two-race deal with Joe Gibbs Racing. Preece is running in the NASCAR Modifieds series this season. . . . Elliott Sadler’s lead over William Byron is up to 54 points. Byron, who had won three races in five starts, was ninth last week at Iowa. . . . Daniel Hemric’s average start of 8.1 ranks first among drivers who’ve run more than four races.

Next race: Mid-Ohio Challenge, August 12, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lexington, Ohio.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

 


CAMPING WORLD TRUCK

Last race: Christopher Bell captured his fourth victory of the season at Pocono.

Next race: LTI Printing 200, Aug. 12, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Michigan.

Online: http://www.nascar.com


INDYCAR

Last race: Josef Newgarden won his second straight race and third of 2017.

Next race: ABC Supply 500, Aug. 20, Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pennsylvania.

Online: http://www.indycar.com


FORMULA ONE

HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX

Last race: Sebastian Vettel won in Hungary last week.

Next race: Belgian Grand Prix, Aug. 27, Circuit De Spa-Francorchamps, Francorchamps, Belgium.

Online: http://www.formula1.com


NHRA

NORTHWEST NATIONALS

Site: Kent, Washington

Schedule: Friday, qualifying, 9 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.; Sunday, finals, 3:37 p.m., FOX.

Track: Pacific Raceways.

Last year: Antron Brown, Ron Capps and Aaron Strong left Washington with victories.

Last race: Steve Torrence won the Top Fuel final at Sonoma.

Fast facts: Torrence now has six wins in 2017 and leads the standings by 75 points. He had just eight victories to his credit entering the season. . . . This weekend marks the end of the circuit’s Western Swing. . . . Brown, who is second in the Top Fuel standings, has taken the last two world titles. . . . Leah Pritchett is third, 119 points behind Torrence.

Next race: Lucas Oil Nationals, August 18-20, Brainerd International Raceway, Brainerd, Minnesota.

Online: http://www.nhra.com


OTHER RACES

WORLD OF OUTLAWS: Friday, Night Before the Ironman, Raceway at I-55, Pevely, Missouri; Saturday, Ironman 55, Raceway at I-55.

Online: http://www.woosprint.com/

In Sports….

The Free Press WV

►  This week in auto racing

MONSTER CUP

OVERTON’S 400

Site: Long Pond, Pennsylvania

Schedule: Saturday, practice, 6 a.m., CNBC, practice, 8:30 a.m., NBCSN; Sunday, qualifying, 8:30 a.m., NBCSN, race, noon, NBCSN.

Track: Pocono Raceway (oval, 2.5 miles)

Race distance: 400 miles, 160 laps.

Last year: Chris Buescher won his first Cup race.

Last week: Kasey Kahne snapped a nearly three-year drought with a win at Indianapolis.

Fast facts: Kahne had gone 102 races between wins. . . . Alex Bowman will fill Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s No. 88 seat in 2018, while Earnhardt will move to NBC in moves announced this week. . . . Team Penske goes to Pocono with new deals in place for Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski and a third seat set for Ryan Blaney. . . . Kyle Larson, currently second in Cup points, won a sprint car race Monday in Ontario.

Next race: I Love New York 355, August 6, Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, New York.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

 

XFINITY

US CELLULAR 250

Site: Newton, Iowa

Schedule: Friday, practice, 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., NBCSN; Saturday, qualifying, 9:05 a.m., race, 12:30 p.m., NBC.

Track: Iowa Speedway (oval, 0.894 miles)

Race distance: 218.75 miles, 250 laps.

Last year: Erik Jones won at Iowa after starting second.

Last race: William Byron took first for the third time in five races.

Fast facts: Byron matched Carl Edwards Jr. with three victories in his first 18 starts. He also tied Kyle Busch with seven top-5s in that stretch and is first in the series with 12 top-10s in his first 18 events. . . . Elliott Sadler still leads the series however. Sadler, on the strength of 15 top-10 finishes, has a 40-point edge on Byron.

Next race: Zippo 200, August 5, Watkins Glen International, Watkins Glen, New York.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK

OVERTON’S 150

Site: Long Pond, Pennsylvania.

Schedule: Friday, practice, 9 and 11 a.m., FS1; Saturday, qualifying, 7 a.m., FS1, race, 10 a.m., FOX.

Track: Pocono Raceway

Race distance: 150 miles, 60 laps.

Last year: William Byron won from the pole.

Last race: Matt Crafton won on Eldora’s dirt track, his first victory of the season.

Fast facts: Johnny Sauter’s lead is down to just seven points. Christopher Bell is second, and he has three wins in 2017. . . . Chase Briscoe is third and Crafton enters Pocono in fourth place. . . . Stewart Friesen earned a career-best second-place finish at Eldora. . . . Crafton, who won the series title in 2013 and 2014, took first for the first time since Charlotte last season.

Next race: LTI Printing 200, August 12, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Michigan.

Online: http://www.nascar.com

INDYCAR

HONDA INDY 200

Site: Lexington, Ohio.

Schedule: Friday, practice, 7 a.m. and 11:15 a.m.; Saturday, practice, 6:55 a.m., qualifying, 11 a.m., NBCSN; Sunday, race, 12:30 p.m., CNBC.

Track: Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (circuit, 2.3 miles)

Race distance: 200.2 miles, 90 laps.

Last year: Simon Pagenaud took first on his way to the series championship.

Last race: Josef Newgarden picked up his second win of 2017 in Toronto.

Fast facts: The series has unveiled its new aero kit for 2018. Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia each ran over 100 laps on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval Tuesday to test it. . . . The new kit, to be used by all competitors starting next season, will also be tested at Mid-Ohio, Iowa and Sebring in August. . . . Scott Dixon’s lead over Helio Castroneves is just three points heading to Ohio.

Next race: ABC Supply 500, August 20, Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pennsylvania.

Online: http://www.indycar.com

FORMULA ONE

HUNGARIAN GRAND PRIX

Site: Budapest

Schedule: Friday, practice, 1 and 5 a.m.; Saturday, practice, 2 a.m., qualifying, 5 a.m.; Sunday, race, 5 a.m., NBCSN.

Track: Hungaroring (circuit, 2.72 miles)

Race distance: 190.5 miles, 70 laps.

Last year: Lewis Hamilton won the third of four straight races in Hungary.

Last race: Hamilton won on his home track in England to move within a point of series leader Sebastian Vettel.

Fast facts: The Hungaroring has been hosting Formula One events since 1986. . . . Hamilton holds the track record with five victories, while McLaren leads all constructors with 11 wins in Hungary.

Next race: Belgian Grand Prix, August 27, Circuit De Spa-Francorchamps, Francorchamps, Belgium.

Online: http://www.formula1.com

NHRA

SONOMA NATIONALS

Site: Sonoma

Schedule: Friday, qualifying, 5 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Saturday, qualifying, 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.; Sunday, finals, 3:30 p.m., FOX.

Track: Sonoma Raceway

Last year: J.R. Todd took first in California in 2016.

Last race: Antron Brown won outside of Denver.

Fast facts: The NHRA makes the second of three stops on its Western Swing when it visits Sonoma. . . . Brown cut Steve Torrence’s lead in Top Fuel to just 54 points by winning last week. Leah Pritchett is third, 70 points back of Torrence. . . . Torrence, Brown and Pritchett have all clinched playoff berths.

Next race: Northwest Nationals, August 6, Pacific Raceways, Kent, Washington.

Online: http://www.nhra.com

OTHER RACES

WORLD OF OUTLAWS: Friday, Battle of Michigan, Hartford Speedway, Hartford, Michigan; Saturday, Badger 40, Wilmot Raceway, Wilmot, Wisconsin.

Online: http://www.woosprint.com/


►  Brain disease seen in most football players in large report

Research on 202 former football players found evidence of a brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them, from athletes in the National Football League, college and even high school.

It’s the largest update on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a debilitating brain disease that can cause a range of symptoms including memory loss.

The report doesn’t confirm that the condition is common in all football players; it reflects high occurrence in samples at a Boston brain bank that studies CTE. Many donors or their families contributed because of the players’ repeated concussions and troubling symptoms before they died.

“There are many questions that remain unanswered,“ said lead author Dr. Ann McKee, a Boston University neuroscientist. “How common is this” in the general population and all football players?

“How many years of football is too many?“ and “What is the genetic risk? Some players do not have evidence of this disease despite long playing years,“ she noted.

It’s also uncertain if some players’ lifestyle habits — alcohol, drugs, steroids, diet — might somehow contribute, McKee said.

Dr. Munro Cullum, a neuropsychologist at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, emphasized that the report is based on a selective sample of men who were not necessarily representative of all football players. He said problems other than CTE might explain some of their most common symptoms before death — depression, impulsivity and behavior changes. He was not involved in the report.

McKee said research from the brain bank may lead to answers and an understanding of how to detect the disease in life, “while there’s still a chance to do something about it.“ Currently, there’s no known treatment.

The strongest scientific evidence says CTE can only be diagnosed by examining brains after death, although some researchers are experimenting with tests performed on the living. Many scientists believe that repeated blows to the head increase risks for developing CTE, leading to progressive loss of normal brain matter and an abnormal buildup of a protein called tau. Combat veterans and athletes in rough contact sports like football and boxing are among those thought to be most at risk.

The new report was published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

CTE was diagnosed in 177 former players or nearly 90 percent of brains studied. That includes 110 of 111 brains from former NFL players; 48 of 53 college players; nine of 14 semi-professional players, seven of eight Canadian Football league players and three of 14 high school players. The disease was not found in brains from two younger players.

A panel of neuropathologists made the diagnosis by examining brain tissue, using recent criteria from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, McKee said.

The NFL issued a statement saying these reports are important for advancing science related to head trauma and said the league “will continue to work with a wide range of experts to improve the health of current and former NFL athletes.“

After years of denials, the NFL acknowledged a link between head blows and brain disease and agreed in a $1 billion settlement to compensate former players who had accused the league of hiding the risks.

The journal update includes many previously reported cases, including former NFL players Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Dave Duerson and Ralph Wenzel.

New ones include retired tight end Frank Wainright, whose 10-year NFL career included stints with the Miami Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens. Wainright died in April 2016 at age 48 from a heart attack triggered by bleeding in the brain, said his wife, Stacie. She said he had struggled almost eight years with frightening symptoms including confusion, memory loss and behavior changes.

Wainright played before the league adopted stricter safety rules and had many concussions, she said. He feared CTE and was adamant about donating his brain, she said.

“A lot of families are really tragically affected by it — not even mentioning what these men are going through and they’re really not sure what is happening to them. It’s like a storm that you can’t quite get out of,“ his wife said.

Frank Wycheck, another former NFL tight end, said he worries that concussions during his nine-year career — the last seven with the Tennessee Titans — have left him with CTE and he plans to donate his brain to research.

“Some people have heads made of concrete, and it doesn’t really affect some of those guys,“ he said. “But CTE is real.“

“I know I’m suffering through it, and it’s been a struggle and I feel for all the guys out there that are going through this,“ said Wycheck, 45.

In the new report, McKee and colleagues found the most severe disease in former professional players; mild disease was found in all three former high school players diagnosed with the disease. Brain bank researchers previously reported that the earliest known evidence of CTE was found in a high school athlete who played football and other sports who died at age 18. He was not included in the current report.

The average age of death among all players studied was 66. There were 18 suicides among the 177 diagnosed.

In Sports….

The Free Press WV

►  Monster Truck’s Trick Has People Flipping Out

Monster trucks are already show stoppers in all their car-smashing, mud-drenched glory, but one driver decided it was time to up the game for everyone in motorsports. At the 2017 Monster Jam World Finals in Las Vegas, driver Lee O’Donnell brought down the house by performing the first-ever monster truck front flip in his behemoth blue crusher, reports the Washington Post. Watch the full performance in this video, where the flip happens a little after two minutes into his run. After tipping seconds later, he exits and salutes the cheering crowd. The Drive notes that he thanked his family before succinctly summing up his feat, which won him first in the freestyle competition: “This is awesome.”

In Sports….

The Free Press WV

►  Sprint Car Driver Killed in Horrific Wreck

Sprint car veteran David Steele has died during a race in Florida, reports the AP, after he locked wheels with another car, went airborne, spun 180 degrees, and hit a retaining wall. Medics attempted to treat him but he was pronounced dead. He was 42. “Desoto Speedway owners and staff are saddened by tonight’s passing of David Steele in the Sprint car feature,“ per a track statement. “Thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends who were all in attendance,“ as he tried for his 100th win in Florida, reports the Bradenton Herald. NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne tweeted that Steele was “one of the best and such a good guy to hang out and have a beer with,“ while Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman wrote: “Man, I love open wheel racing, but something has to change.“


►  It’s Official: Oakland Raiders Are Moving to Las Vegas

The Oakland Raiders will soon be the Las Vegas Raiders. The football team’s move to Sin City was approved in a 31-1 vote of NFL owners Monday, Sports Illustrated reports. Miami was the only city to oppose the move, which will take place in 2020. “The Raiders were born in Oakland and Oakland will always be part of our DNA,“ Raiders owner Mark Davis said in a statement. “We know that some fans will be disappointed and even angry, but we hope that they do not direct that frustration to the players, coaches, and staff. We plan to play at the Coliseum in 2017 and 2018, and hope to stay there as the Oakland Raiders until the new stadium,“ a planned 65,000-seat dome in Las Vegas, “opens. We would love nothing more than to bring a championship back to the Bay Area.“ More on the move:

  • NFL Media columnist Michael Silver notes that the Raiders have already “abandoned” Oakland once before (for a 13-year stint in Los Angeles), but even then, fans remained loyal. His take on “the complicated emotional bond between city and team” HERE .
  • Got questions? ESPN has an exhaustive FAQ on how the move came about HERE .
  • Why did Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross vote against the move? Likely because he’s concerned about the idea of a team’s “legacy” in a certain city, NESN explains.
  • Oakland will actually come out ahead financially when the Raiders leave town, thanks to the excessive cost of game days, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

In Sports….

The Free Press WV

►  Earnhardt wants to win a title then ride into retirement

Upon further review, hoisting a championship trophy is exactly how Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants to end his career.
NASCAR’s most popular driver caused a stir on “The Dan Patrick Show” when he claimed he would immediately retire if he wins the title this year. The statement followed him to media day for the Daytona 500, and there was no question about it.

“Hell, yeah. I would definitely not want to come back and try to race anymore if I won the championship. I would be outta here,“ he said. “That’s the last box I don’t have checked, really. There’s a few races I’d like to win. The championship would definitely be the icing on the cake for my career.“

Earnhardt is the son of Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, who won a record-tying seven championships over his career. As Earnhardt enters the 18th season of his Cup career, he’s still seeking his first title.

He’s said repeatedly that retirement is not on his radar, and at just 42 years old, he should have many years ahead in his career. But Earnhardt has had concussion issues and missed the second half of last season recovering from one. He is also newly married and says he is looking at life differently.

Knowing how hard he worked to get healthy and back in the race car, he really just wants to dictate his final racing years himself and not have a doctor be the one to end his career.

“To come back this year, win a championship, it would be hard not to hang it up,“ he said. “This is the last year of my (contract). I would like to race more. But if I win the championship, I’d have to consider going out on top.“

Earnhardt qualified second for Sunday’s season-opening Daytona 500 — on the front row next to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Chase Elliott — and is the star of Speedweeks. All the drivers had a chance to address a variety of topics Wednesday. The highlights:

CONCUSSION AWARENESS

The absence of Dale Earnhardt Jr. for 18 races last season raised awareness on concussions in racing, and NASCAR this year has beefed up its concussion policy in an effort to better detect head injuries. Danica Patrick, who raced for years in IndyCar before moving to NASCAR, estimated she’s suffered a dozen concussions in her career.

“Every time you crash you have a concussion on a varying degree, I’m sure,“ she said. “It is a little bit thought-provoking ... because while we’re not football players, we don’t get the repeated hits like in succession over a short amount of time, but it’s rough in the car and the hits are probably singularly bigger.

“There’s nothing better than having somebody like Dale Jr. going so far as to get out of the car for as long as he did and saying, ‘Hey, I have a problem,‘ because it makes it more available for everyone else. I think we like to sweep it all under the rug as drivers like we feel fine and nothing is wrong, but it’s our life.“

TURN 4 TROUBLES

Hendrick Motorsports has been admittedly aggressive in preparing for the Daytona 500, and it may be the cause of the problems the team has had in Turn 4 at Daytona International Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson twice spun in that turn Sunday during an exhibition race, and pole-sitter Chase Elliott got loose in the same spot in practice. In last year’s Daytona 500, both Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. spun in Turn 4.

“We can’t sit still. We need faster cars. Everybody is working on it,“ Johnson said. “We were very aggressive in the (Clash) trying to create speed for the car, and I’m a guy that likes a loose race car so I was willing to roll dice.“

Johnson also noted that Alex Bowman and Kasey Kahne had no problems with Turn 4 in Sunday’s race.

“We have great notes to fall back on. We had a very good driving car in last year’s 500, and then two teammates that didn’t spin out in the Clash, so we have plenty of notes to go to, but we’re definitely being aggressive.“

TOYOTA TEAMWORK

A solid game plan got Toyota its first Daytona 500 victory last season, and the manufacturer wants to use that same teamwork this year during Speedweeks. It was on display during the Clash on Sunday when the Toyota entries ran 1-2-3-4 for most of the race.

It remains to be seen if the same strategy will work in the Daytona 500. The Toyota fleet now includes a pair of rookies in Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, and neither has much experience in a Cup car.

“Game plans don’t necessarily all work out,“ said Toyota driver Matt Kenseth. “You’ve got to have strong cars to do it. The car has to end up there, not be separated by bad pit stops or strategy. I thought we had it lined up really good in the Clash. We had all four of us in a row for a while.

“We just weren’t quite fast enough.“

RACE FAVORITES?

Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano teamed to win six of the last nine restrictor-plate races, and Logano won the exhibition Clash on Sunday.

It means Team Penske is a heavy favorite for Sunday, and eager for the 500 to arrive.

“I wish it was Sunday right now, I’m ready to go racing,“ Keselowski said.

Austin Dillon praised the way Keselowski raced Sunday, and called a move Keselowski made where he went to the bottom, then the middle, then back to the bottom, “pretty wicked. That was a sweet move.“

Dillon called Logano, Keselowski and defending race winner Denny Hamlin the drivers to beat.

“As a race car driver you always look to be better at certain things,“ Logano said. “When I first started speedway racing, I wasn’t very good at all and I’ve worked really hard at it to become better. I’m confident enough to say I’m the best race car driver out there, but I guess at the same time after the race I’m able to look back at the race and say, ‘Why did I do that? I screwed this up. I did that wrong.‘ I’m able to still find a lot of things that I can be a lot better at.“


►  Only 2 Cities Are Still Bidding to Host 2024 Olympics

The International Olympic Committee is due to meet in September to vote on the site of the 2024 Olympics—but if one more city drops out, they won’t need to. The Hungarian government confirmed Wednesday that Budapest’s bid has been withdrawn, leaving Paris and Los Angeles as the only remaining contenders, the BBC reports. Hamburg and Boston dropped their bids in 2015, and Rome withdrew in September last year. More than 250,000 Hungarians signed a petition calling for Budapest to drop out, saying the money would be better spent on hospitals and schools, reports the New York Times.

The cost of hosting the Olympics has made it an increasingly unattractive proposition in recent years. Budapest Mayor Istvan Tarlos only started supporting the bid after the IOC introduced its Agenda 2020 reforms two years ago to make hosting the Games more affordable, Reuters reports. On Wednesday, he seemed ready to put the bid to rest. “I never insisted on the Olympics,“ he told the city council, calling for the issue to be resolved quickly. “There is no point dragging out this process like strudel dough.“ If LA wins in September, it will become the first US city to host the Summer Olympics since Atlanta in 1996.


►  Tom Brady Has a Few Suspects in Stolen Jersey Case

Tom Brady has revealed his list of “suspects” in the case of his missing Super Bowl jersey, posting a “suspect board” on Instagram on Wednesday. The tongue-in-cheek group of shady characters includes halftime performer Lady Gaga, Gollum from Lord of the Rings, and the “guy who stole Khaleesi’s eggs” from Game of Thrones. Oh, and also Jaws, because he “takes things without asking” and has a “violent history.“ See all the suspects HERE .

In Sports….

The Free Press WV

►  Optimism in high gear at Daytona for NASCAR’s top teams

Optimism abounds after the opening weekend at Daytona International Speedway, especially for NASCAR’s top teams.

Teamwork at Joe Gibbs Racing appears as solid as ever despite adding rookie Daniel Suarez to the mix, evidenced by Denny Hamlin, Suarez, Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch running 1-2-3-4 for much of the Clash at Daytona.

Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski look as if they could continue their recent dominance at restrictor-plate races, and with Stewart-Haas Racing switching from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason, they now have a few extra friends — Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Danica Patrick and Clint Bowyer — to help around NASCAR’s most famous track.

Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole again as well as another front-row sweep.

And the usual suspects — Hamlin, Logano and Keselowski — seem to be up front at every turn.

Combine all those notable nuggets, and the 59th running of “The Great American Race” on Sunday is setting up to be another unpredictable showcase event.

Some other things we learned from the opening of Speedweeks:

___

HENDRICK HORSEPOWER: Hendrick Motorsports has the Daytona 500 pole-sitter for the third consecutive season and swept the front row for the fourth time in the last eight years. It’s a clear indication Hendrick has the horsepower — as usual — to be a factor in NASCAR’s opener.

Chase Elliott landed the pole for the second time in as many years, and fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. made his triumphant return to racing by securing the No. 2 starting spot. Earnhardt missed the final 18 races of 2016 because of nausea and vision and balance issues after at least the fifth concussion of his career.

___

TROUBLING TURN: Although much went right for Hendrick, the four-car team found cause for concern.

Seven-time and defending series champion Jimmie Johnson spun twice in Turn 4 during the Clash at Daytona on Sunday, adding to the team’s recent woes in the high-banked corner. Teammates Chase Elliott and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had similar issues in the 2016 Daytona 500, both crashing in the final turn.

So what may have seemed like a one-year fluke is now a full-fledged trend for Hendrick.

“It’s a concern,“ said Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Elliott. “We have things in place to try to improve that, and we’re very aware of it.“

Earnhardt sounded like getting the turn straight would be a priority during the week.

“We’re looking at our notes from over the years,“ Earnhardt said, pointing specifically to 2015. “We’ll look at what we did then and what we’re doing now and sort of go through the process of elimination, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing until we fix it.“

___

NEW RULES: NASCAR’s new rules received mixed results in the opening weekend.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Kyle Larson was parked with 14 laps remaining in the Clash for violating NASCAR’s new damaged-vehicle policy. Officials said Larson’s team had more than six crew members over the wall to work on his damaged No. 42 Chevrolet. NASCAR policy states that teams can’t continue in the race if they’re caught with too many men over the wall.

“I didn’t even know that was a rule,“ Larson said. “It’s just confusing. We know now.“

NASCAR also got its first look at its new concussion assessment testing.

Drivers involved in a wreck that sends their car to the garage must report to the infield care center for an evaluation. Concussion assessment tests are administered if care center doctors believe there is a concern of head injury.

Former series champion Kurt Busch was the first to wreck under the new rule and praised the extra evaluation.

“There was an individual that met me out by the car, rode with me in the ambulance and again met with the doctors and just went through different sequences to check all of the different vitals and we were released,“ Busch said. “It’s just a little bit of an upgrade. You can tell that they’ve made an effort and it’s nice to have that security.“

____

PATRICK’S RUN: Danica Patrick did it again at Daytona.

Patrick has been solid at times at Daytona since her rookie season when she won the Daytona 500 pole and led five laps. She finished fourth at the Clash, a needed confidence boost following a dismal 2016. She finished 24th in the standings and failed to post a top-10 finish.

Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin crashed on the last lap, allowing Patrick to sneak through for the best finish of her NASCAR career.

“I will say that I got a little lucky, but there’s a lot of that in speedway racing,“ she said.

___

BOWMAN’S LAND: Alex Bowman’s final scheduled race for Hendrick Motorsports was a doozy.

He finished third in the No. 88 Chevrolet, his last time subbing for Earnhardt. Earnhardt was cleared to race in the 88 but let Bowman take a deserved turn for his sturdy job in part-time duty last season.

Bowman chatted with Kyle Busch on pit road after the race. Bowman worked hard to pass Busch over the final laps instead of teaming with him to chase the leaders.

Bowman said it was an honor to drive for Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick. His NASCAR future is unknown.

“It’s definitely kind of like a bittersweet feeling,“ he said. “I don’t really know what I have going forward, and I only know of one race for sure that I’m going to run, and it’s not a Cup race this year.“

___

MONSTER DEBUT: Kurt Busch’s car was the center of attention of before the Clash. His car’s make? A Ford. The model? Try models, the bevy of Monster Energy girls who posed for pictures with bystanders.

Busch is sponsored by Monster Energy — but the energy drink company also took over this season as title sponsor for the Cup series.

Its debut was a monster dud.

Busch hit the wall a few laps into the race, the green squiggly M logo on the hood crushed as the car was towed to the garage.

Other than the Monster girls, there has been little promotion by the company. Monster isn’t selling drinks at concession stands, and there are no ads spread around the track.

There was a billboard in the fan zone promoting NBC’s television coverage that still had the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series logo plastered in the middle.

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