by Julian Spivey
William Byron, who arguably had the best 2023 season of any NASCAR Cup Series driver with his series-high six wins, began the 2024 Cup Series season on Monday, February 19 winning the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500.
Byron’s first career Cup Series win came at the track in 2020 in the fall race but he’s never had any success in the “Great American Race” before Monday. In fact, in six previous Daytona 500 starts Byron had never finished the race.
Byron came up as something of an unusual prodigy in NASCAR learning how to drive more at first on a simulator in his home than at the race track, as most drivers do. He tore up the Craftsman Truck Series in 2016 at age 18 winning seven races, nearly one-third of that series’ schedule. The next year in the Xfinity Series at 19 he would win four races and finish in the top 10 in 22 of 33 races. He was then moved up to the Cup Series, maybe a bit too quickly in the eyes of some, for the 2018 season at age 20. Byron struggled in his first two Cup seasons failing to win a race and recording just 17 top 10s over 72 races in Hendrick Motorsports equipment, so the best the sport has to offer.
That first win came in 2020. He would win another race in 2021 at Homestead-Miami Speedway and then in 2022 finally had his first multiple-win season with wins at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Martinsville Speedway.
His 2023 season, where he led the sport with six wins, felt like it came out of nowhere. But at age 25 maybe he finally had gotten comfortable with the equipment and his talent level reached that of his competitors.
Now, in the first race of the 2024 Cup Series season, Byron has won the biggest race of them all and has become the first driver to clinch a spot in the 2024 NASCAR Playoff field. His six wins from 2023 would be pretty hard to top, but at the moment there’s no better driver in the NASCAR Cup Series than William Byron.
This past weekend, February 17-18, seems like the one where NBA fans have finally become fed up with the NBA All-Star Weekend.
The All-Star festivities on Saturday night in Indianapolis got off to a great start with a fun three-point contest, an event that seems unbreakable, with Milwaukee Bucks All-Star guard Damian Lillard defending his 2023 title in a tight-fought battle against Karl Anthony-Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves), Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks) and Tyrese Haliburton (Indiana Pacers). Then came the new event many NBA and WNBA fans alike were looking forward to – the three-point shootout between all-time NBA three-point leader Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) and Sabrina Ionescu (New York Liberty), who scored a record 37 points in the 2023 WNBA three-point contest (Curry held the NBA record at 31). In a fun competition (except for TNT’s Kenny Smith’s commentary that drew the ire of many, especially female fans) Curry defeated Ionescu 29-26.
Hopefully, the NBA star vs. WNBA star aspect of NBA All-Star Saturday Night continues into future years.
What earned NBA All-Star weekend the “Sports Zero” of the week was everything that came next. For the second year in a row the NBA Slam Dunk Contest was won by a player who isn’t even technically in the NBA but in the league’s minor leagues known as the NBA G League. Max McClung, on the Orlando Magic’s minor league team, defeated three actual NBA players for the second year in a row. McClung now has almost as many Slam Dunk Contest trophies (2) as NBA games played in his career (4).
Many have long bashed the Slam Dunk Contest for a lack of quality, excitement and array of dunks – which is understandable but also somewhat unfair as there are only so many kinds of dunks that can be done after 40-plus years of dunk contests. My biggest issue has been a lack of star power in the event, which was alleviated a bit this year with Boston Celtics All-Star Jaylen Brown taking part in the event and then absolutely embarrassing himself with a lackluster performance that reminded us why most All-Stars stay far away from the event.
I don’t want to see the NBA Slam Dunk Contest eliminated but I’m also not sure there’s any way to fix it.
The more concerning aspect of NBA All-Star weekend for many fans was the effort-free All-Star game itself on Sunday night (February 18). The league went back to the traditional Eastern Conference vs. Western Conference format this season after many years of having a superstar from each conference draft teams consisting of all of the game’s All-Stars. The league also went back to the traditional four quarters instead of having a certain number to hit after three quarters.
But it was clear from the start that there was no real effort to play defense by either squad, which has become more and more the case over the years, and many of the players just took the opportunity to see who could hit the most three-pointers and from how far they could. It was kind of like watching a shootaround with the occasional fancy pass or dunk thrown in.
The word “pride” was thrown around a lot by fans on social media perturbed by the effort given during the game, as in “these players need to take more pride in their effort.” But times have changed and you don’t have the kind of athletes out on the court anymore who truly despise each other and don’t want to lose to them, even in an exhibition game. How does one enforce something that isn’t truly mandatory? The NBA All-Stars play an 82-game season where they try to give their all and then those who make the postseason spend another two months trying to win a title. They just want to have fun on All-Star weekend (if they even want to be there at all). They don’t want to worry about potential injury by playing at full speed. So, they turn it into a Harlem Globetrotters performance.
I don’t think there’s any way to fix that way of thinking. It’s just come to a point where we fans have to determine if the game is worth watching or if we’d rather do anything else on a random Sunday night in February every year. On Sunday, I held in as long as I could, but by the fourth quarter, I was ready for anything else.
by Julian Spivey
The 2024 NASCAR season begins this weekend and at the moment there are so many talented drivers in the Cup Series that it feels like the majority of the field could win any given week. That makes trying to predict the 16-driver NASCAR Playoffs field pretty hard but we’ll find out in September how many I got right.
16. Brad Keselowski
Veteran Brad Keselowski enters his third season as co-owner of Roush Fenway Keselowski (RFK) Racing and has yet to win a race with his team, which has to be a disappointment for him even if he did point his way into the playoffs last year. Keselowski’s 98-race winless streak is the second longest of any active Cup driver who has won a race (only Justin Haley’s 105-race streak is longer). I feel like Keselowski will finally get that RFK win this season but even if he doesn’t will likely point his way in again.
15. Kyle Busch
It might sound ridiculous because Kyle Busch won three races in 2023 but I briefly considered leaving him off the list because I do not trust Richard Childress Racing. The team pretty much disappeared on Busch last season when it mattered most in the playoffs but ultimately I couldn’t predict against him. He’s just too talented.
14. Chris Buescher
For about the stretch of a month late last summer, Chris Buescher was the hottest driver in NASCAR. He won three races in the span of five (including three straight ovals) but then he kind of faded a bit in the postseason – he wasn’t bad but he just wasn’t close enough to the front to capitalize and win. I certainly don’t think you could predict Buescher to win three races again – but there’s no reason to believe he won’t break through at least once to clinch a playoff spot.
13. Alex Bowman
Alex Bowman won seven races between 2019 and 2023, including a career-high four races in 2022. When you drive for Hendrick Motorsports you’re expected to win races but last year Bowman hurt himself in an extracurricular dirt track race that forced him to miss three races. When he returned he just never looked right. I assume he’ll be back to his normal self this season, which should mean at least one win.
12. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.
Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. had the best season of his NASCAR Cup Series career in 2023 making the playoffs for the first time despite failing to win a race. Wallace seems to be gaining more and more confidence with age and the next box he needs to tick off is winning multiple races in a season and I think that’s coming in 2024.
11. Ty Gibbs
Some might say that Ty Gibbs had a disappointing rookie Cup Series season coming off an Xfinity Series championship the year before, but I don’t see it that way. It’s hard to win a race in the Cup Series, especially for a rookie, and even though he didn’t find Victory Lane in his rookie season he almost pointed his way into the playoffs being the first driver to miss the cut. With Joe Gibbs Racing equipment and his talent level, I’d be shocked if Gibbs didn’t win a race in 2024 and he might win multiple ones.
10. Joey Logano
Joey Logano only won one race in 2023, which is quite shocking for a driver of his caliber, and that came on the newly pack-racing style of Atlanta Motor Speedway in the fifth race of the year. So, he enters 2024 with a 30-plus race winless streak that I know he’s going to be raring to snap. I just don’t know what to expect from Logano in 2024. I would assume multiple race wins – but even if it’s more of the same from last season he still finds a way into the playoff field.
9. Ross Chastain
Ross Chastain had an interesting 2023 season. He won the same number of races as he did the previous year (two) but his overall numbers were down with five fewer top-5s and seven fewer top-10s. It seemed like he let some of the talk of him being too aggressive get into his head and interfered with his mojo a bit. I think we’re going to see a return to form for Chastain, in which he doesn’t give a damn what others think … or at least I hope we are for excitement's sake.
8. Tyler Reddick
Tyler Reddick seems like a no-brainer for the playoffs after his last two seasons: 2022 with Richard Childress Racing and last year in his first season at 23XI Racing. The 27-year-old have combined for five race wins over the last two seasons. The question now for Reddick is can he move forward and jump from a winning driver to one of the elite drivers in the sport? I’m not sure he’s there yet but expect him to win at least a couple of races again, especially with as talented as he is on road courses.
7. Christopher Bell
Christopher Bell has made the Championship Four the last two seasons so having him at only No. 7 on this list could be seen as a bit disrespectful. However, I feel like Bell is going to need to take one more step before I can buy him as a title threat and that is to win more often. He won six races over the last three seasons, but no more than three in any given season. Typically, the champion has to win more than that.
6. Chase Elliott
Chase Elliott was, without a doubt, the biggest disappointment in NASCAR last season. The sport’s most popular driver missed seven races – six due to an injury sustained in an extracurricular activity and one due to suspension for intentionally wrecking a competitor in a race – in 2023, but he didn’t quite look right following his return from said injury. At times it feels like Elliott would rather be doing anything but racing his No. 9 Rick Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, but I see no reason why he shouldn’t get back to his winning ways that saw him win 18 times from 2018-2022 in 2024. NASCAR needs him to return to winning form, for sure.
5. Martin Truex Jr.
I don’t understand what happened to Martin Truex Jr. in the NASCAR Playoffs in 2023. He won the regular season point standings, which gave him a big bonus for the playoffs. He won three races during the regular season. Then he just fell off a cliff in the playoffs looking like the kind of driver that deserved to be nowhere near the chase for the championship. I assume Truex will get back to his winning ways in 2024 but you never know. Sometimes when a driver hits a certain age, Truex is 43, they just seem to lose “it” and never return. If that could happen to maybe the sport's all-time greatest driver Jimmie Johnson it could certainly be the case for Truex.
4. Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney surprised many by winning the NASCAR Cup Series championship in 2023 taking full advantage of the playoff system by clinching his way into the championship race by winning the penultimate race of the year at Martinsville and then finishing the highest of the four contenders at the season finale at Phoenix to win the title. Some within the sport’s media didn’t think he was a championship-caliber driver. Despite winning three races and the title in 2023 some still don’t seem to be giving him the credit he’s due. I’ve seen the phrase “worst champion” thrown about multiple times on social media when describing Blaney. I think 2024 will be the year Blaney proves he wasn’t some fluke champion.
3. William Byron
William Byron led all of NASCAR’s Cup Series in wins in 2023 with six, which was more than his first five seasons in the series combined. It was truly the breakout year for William Byron, who would go on to finish third in the championship. You don’t just luck your way into six wins, 15 top-5s, 21 top-10s and an average finish of 11th. I’m not going to predict Byron will once again lead the sport in wins but I don’t see much falloff coming his way.
2. Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin is the greatest bridesmaid in the history of NASCAR. He may not have as many runner-up finishes as Hall of Famer Mark Martin (he only has one) but he’s been the most successful driver in the history of the sport to not win a championship. The last two seasons have seen Hamlin as the first man out of the championship four at Phoenix. Hamlin is good for multiple wins a season. I’ve got him once again as the bridesmaid.
1. Kyle Larson
Kyle Larson seems like the year-in-year-out title favorite right now in NASCAR’s Cup Series. The 2021 champion has won at least three races in every season he’s been with Hendrick Motorsports and has appeared in the Championship Four in two of his three years with the team. Larson was the runner-up to Ryan Blaney in 2023, despite having better numbers overall during the season, which included four wins and 15 top-5s. I do believe there may be a stretch during this season where Larson might be off as he’s focused on his debut run in the Indianapolis 500 but that’ll wear off well before playoff time and he’ll be the driver to beat.
by Julian Spivey
The Word on Pop Culture’s sports hero for the week truly could be the entire Kansas City Chiefs roster and staff for winning Super Bowl LVIII over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, February 11 but I want the honor to be a bit more limiting than that – so who better to give it to than the man who led the Chiefs offense down the field in overtime searching for and reaching that game-winning touchdown.
Patrick Mahomes won his third career Super Bowl M.V.P. honor on Sunday night and he’s only 28 years old. Mahomes’s accolades and dominance over the first six years of his career (not counting the 2017 rookie year, in which he only played in one game), including three Super Bowl titles and two league M.V.P. awards among other things have sealed the deal as far as him having the greatest start to a career in NFL history. In the minds of some, he’s already one of the three greatest quarterbacks in league history along with Tom Brady and Joe Montana. I’m not sure he should be placed above five-time NFL M.V.P. Peyton Manning just yet but he’s already won more Super Bowls than Manning did, so I can understand why some are already doing so.
At times early in Super Bowl LVIII, Mahomes and the Chiefs didn’t look all that impressive – much like they had at many times throughout the regular season – but at the end of the day Mahomes had 333 passing yards, two touchdown passes, was 34-for-46 passing and ran for a team-high 66 yards. It seems that when the game is on the line – and in fact, more so when the Chiefs are behind on the biggest stage – Mahomes becomes the Football Superman that he is. In all three Super Bowl wins Mahomes has led the Chiefs from second-half deficits to win the game.
Often in today’s sports world the more dominant and awesome an athlete is the more the majority of fans seem to dislike them – which seems to be a new world phenomenon, as I don’t remember this same feeling of athletes like Michael Jordan in the past – but I hope most football fans will take a moment to appreciate the greatness they’re witnessing out of Mahomes and get used to it because there are no signs of it ending soon.
Charley Hoffman won the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Ariz. over the last weekend in a playoff finish over Nick Taylor but the biggest story to come out of that tournament was the behavior of the spectators, who turned the event into a drunken party that included 54 arrests for things like intoxication and fights.
Those in charge of the tournament have vowed to change the fan experience for the event in 2025 but honestly, the tournament and the PGA Tour have done so much to build up the party aspect of this tournament and venue that I can’t help but put much of the blame on them. Of course, spectators shouldn’t be having drunken brawls, falling out of the stands, doing “sand angels” in the bunkers, etc. but when you market something as a party atmosphere you shouldn’t be surprised when the types of things you’d occasionally see at parties happen at your event.
I’m not sure what the tournament can and will do to try to get rid of this behavior without harming itself. I imagine some sort of alcohol limitation but that also will cost the tournament money.
But again, like with my sports hero of the week, I’d like to pinpoint a sports zero of the down to one person, and that person this week is PGA Tour veteran and multiple-time major tournament winner Zach Johnson.
There were a handful of PGA golfers who seemed irritated with the behavior of the spectators over the weekend, including Billy Horschel and Jordan Spieth, but Johnson seemed to be the most outspoken. The 47-year-old golfer could be heard admonishing the crowd at one point saying: “I’m just sick of it. Just shut up!.” After the event, Johnson would tell the media: “This tournament has been inappropriate and crossed the line since I’ve been on tour, and this is my 21st year.”
My advice to Johnson would simply be, “Don’t come back.” This tournament can and will exist without Zach Johnson.
I’ve been a golf fan for more than 25 years but one thing that I’ve always found laughable, in particular, is how golfers react to any noise whatsoever while they’re “in the zone” – this was what Horschel had an incident with fans about too. In every other major sport in the world, the athletes compete at the top level with incredibly loud venues. Are you telling me these guys can’t focus and hit a motionless golf ball with a bit of noise while you have baseball players at any and every level hitting a moving target with all hell breaking loose around them?
I don’t feel sorry for these guys.
Yes, the spectators at the Phoenix Open have gotten worse over the last few years. Just two years ago there were zero arrests made at the tournament. But I can’t help but think that reactions like the kind had by Johnson over the weekend aren’t making their sport look worse.
by Eric Fulton & Julian Spivey
*This conversation had been edited for grammar and clarity.
JS: Super Bowl LVIII between the AFC Champion and defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers is Sunday, February 11 on CBS.
Let’s break down the key positions for the big game!
At quarterback for the Chiefs is, of course, Patrick Mahomes who has led the Chiefs to two Super Bowl titles already at just 28 years old. The 49ers have Brock Purdy, who was famously Mr. Irrelevant or the final draft pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, and now less than two years later is leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Which team has the advantage here?
EF: As much as I like Brock Purdy and respect him for what he has done in two years, the obvious answer is Patrick Mahomes. Mahomes is playing in his fourth Super Bowl in the last five years. Not a lot of quarterbacks can say that. It is beyond amazing what Mahomes is doing and he will (hopefully) still play another 10 years in the league.
JS: I agree with you that the obvious answer is Patrick Mahomes with his experience, but the wild thing here is that Brock Purdy is one of the NFL MVP finalists this year and Mahomes isn't and we're still taking Mahomes as the no-brainer.
JS: Speaking of no-brainers, the running back position has to go to the 49ers and Christian McCaffrey, right? He's one of the five NFL MVP finalists too and the best back in the league at the moment. Is Isiah Pacheco even in his zip code?
EF: While Isiah Pacheco has played well at times for Kansas City this year, this is yet another no-brainer. When the 49ers acquired Christian McCaffrey from the Carolina Panthers, I thought this would be the best place for him because the 49ers want to run the ball and they rely on McCaffery to use his speed and his ability to make plays that help set up the pass. The Chiefs' defense will have to make sure to stop the run and force Purdy to pass when he does not want to.
JS: Let's go ahead and put the receivers and tight ends together here. The two best tight ends in the NFL will be featured in this game in Travis Kelce for the Chiefs and George Kittle for the 49ers. The 49ers also have fantastic wide receivers in Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel. The receivers corps for the Chiefs has been probably the team's biggest question mark this season. Of the receivers not dating Taylor Swift, the only one with more than 500 receiving yards this year was Rashee Rice, who hasn't played in the postseason due to injury. Marquez Valdes-Scantling had been the team's second option in the passing game behind Kelce this postseason. This seems like another no-brainer ... so how far behind are the Chiefs?
EF: If the Chiefs had one or two decent wide receivers to go along with Kelce, this would be a push. I don't think the Chiefs are that far off because of Kelce, but if Kelce has a monster game, the 49ers are going to lose.
JS: When it comes to the defensive side of the ball neither of these teams are slouches. Both are in the top eight in the league when it comes to defensive yards allowed averages. The Chiefs were the second-best this season allowing 289.3 yards to their opponents, while the 49ers were eighth allowing 303.9 yards. During the postseason, the Chiefs have seen their average at 322.7 yards over three games and the 49ers are at 386 over two games. The Chiefs have been giving up less than two touchdowns on average this postseason, while the 49ers are closer to four in one less game.
Eric, which team has the defensive advantage?
EF: This game is going to come down to whoever plays defense the best. The 49ers have not played the best defense in the playoffs but if they can get on a roll, they are hard to stop. The Chiefs are much better this year than in years past. Now you are seeing the offense not being relied on so much. I was surprised Kansas City only scored 17 points in the AFC Championship and won. I did pick the Chiefs to win, but I thought they would score at least 20 or more to do so. The Chiefs have been really good down the stretch and I see them being the better unit of the two teams, so I will give the slight edge to the Chiefs.
JS: Based on everything you said I’m assuming you’re going to predict the Chiefs to win the Super Bowl?
EF: Yeah, I am. As much as I think the 49ers are very good and can win this game, I see the Chiefs playing the better game and, once again, I can't bet against Mahomes and coach Andy Reid.
JS: I’ve been on record throughout this conversation we’ve been having all postseason as saying I’d need to see the Chiefs lose before I could predict them to lose. But the 49ers have so many bright spots that I’m having a harder time sticking the that. I know the Chiefs have had a bit better of a defense this season and the Chiefs have looked like the better of the two teams in the postseason. But my gut is telling me Christian McCaffrey is going to have a big game and the 49ers are going to pull out a close one.
by Julian Spivey
Netflix’s latest foray into sports docuseries, “NASCAR: Full Speed,” premiered on January 30, and there’s hope the five-episode series will do for the sport of NASCAR what the similar “Drive to Survive” series did for Formula 1.
Now, there are certainly major differences between F1 and NASCAR, despite both being motorsports. F1 is primarily European with one American driver, and he’s new to the sport. Whereas NASCAR is primarily American with few drivers hailing from elsewhere. So, theoretically, Americans should have more understanding of NASCAR than they did F1. However, it is still seen in the minds of many as a regional, Southern American thing – even if that’s a stereotype that should’ve died off by now.
“NASCAR: Full Speed” follows many of the NASCAR drivers as they made their way through the 10-race NASCAR Playoffs last season – spending most of the time on the younger faces of the sport and some brash characters like Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.
The episodes are slick, well shot and directed and interspersed with driver interviews and some behind-the-scenes looks into their lives off the track.
As a NASCAR fan already, the show didn’t do a whole lot for me as far as recapping the NASCAR Playoffs, which began less than half a year ago and ended less than three months before the debut of this series, which was an impressive turnaround by Netflix to get this out before the 2024 season begins.
I also didn’t feel the show gave us enough behind-the-scenes moments from inside the homes and family lives of the drivers. I never finished the 2022 USA Network’s NASCAR docuseries “Race for the Championship,” but I didn’t feel the Netflix version gave us any more insight into the home lives of these drivers. We got a nice look into Hamlin’s home life, but there wasn’t a lot else – meaning Hamlin probably gave the Netflix crew more access than the other drivers.
I’m sure many viewers enjoyed getting the chance to get to know some of the driver’s other halves a bit more, even if it mostly focused on Ryan Blaney’s supermodel-looking fiancée Gianna Tulio and William Byron’s girlfriend Erin Blaney, who is Ryan’s sister. But the documentary kind of makes these women look like the “I’m a NASCAR wife. I don’t work” “Talladega Nights” stereotype. It would’ve been nice to dig a bit deeper, for instance, Erin is the Executive Director of the Ryan Blaney Family Foundation and she specializes in raising awareness and creating funding for brain injuries. Now, that may not sound all that exciting, but it certainly adds a dimension to who she is for the audience.
The only real difference between ‘Full Speed’ and some of the previous NASCAR docuseries I’ve seen was with the series being on Netflix, instead of cable television, the language could flow freely without censorship. That’s not a big enough change to excite me.
Judging by social media response from many fellow NASCAR fans and those within the sport, ‘Full Speed’ was well-received within the community and I was certainly rarely bored with the brisk 45-minute episodes. However, I didn’t think the docuseries gave me much as a NASCAR fan that I didn’t already know and that’s something I’m always looking for from these series (and rarely seem to get) going in.
I hope “NASCAR: Full Speed” works the kind of magic that “Drive to Survive” did when it comes to bringing more fans into the sport and hopefully different kinds of fans into the sport. It’s hard to judge as a fan of the sport for more than two decades if it’s the kind of thing that would’ve made me say, “Hey, I have to check this out now,” if I’d never seen a NASCAR race. Honestly, I’m surprised there are viewers out there clicking on things to watch they aren’t somewhat familiar with already – but “Drive to Survive” proved they exist. Hopefully, we’ll see a bigger interest in NASCAR going forward and can say, “That’s the ‘Full Speed’ bump.”