NASCAR: Junior Jumps
When the 2008 season starts in NASCAR's renamed Sprint Cup Series, most of the talk will be about Dale Earnhardt Jr's great expectations. Even questions of whether Jimmie Johnson can three-peat as champ will pale next to guesses about Johnson's new Hendrick Motorsports stablemate, who shocked the sport with his defection from Dale Earnhardt, Inc, the company his late father built. Junior won his fifth straight Most Popular Driver award last season, but his fans are aching for him to hoist more hardware, and team owner Rick Hendrick is feeling the pressure. "My main concern is that people don't get disappointed too early," he says. "Give us a chance to get it all figured out." Junior comes to Hendrick with crew chief and cousin Tony Eury Jr and a bitter taste after his substandard 2007. (He finished 16th in the standings and failed to qualify for the Chase for the Cup.) Fans should see improvement, given the Hendrick resources and success — Earnhardt will be sharing information with the likes of Johnson and four-time champ Jeff Gordon. Admits Hendrick, "The more I'm around Junior, the more confident I am that he's gonna be a good fit and do well."
The NASCAR season begins with the Daytona 500 Feb. 17 on Fox.
NFL: Will Brett Be Back?
The NFL's favorite guessing game is already gearing up for 2008. Will Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre return or retire? "I would say that he's coming back," says CBS analyst Boomer Esiason. "I don't know how he can't come back."
And why not? The 38-year-old Favre is having one of his best years ever, even by his own lofty standards. He became the winningest quarterback of all time and the NFL's leader in touchdown passes, and he now holds the all-time yardage record, all while leading the Packers back to the playoffs after a two-year drought.
"He's got a good team around him and I think they'll only get better," Esiason says. Green Bay began the season 10-1, its best start since 1962, then lost to Dallas in a game in which Favre was injured. Yet even the fates were on Favre's side. Because that was a Thursday game, he had 10 days to recover and start his 250th straight regular-season game. Will that streak stretch into 2008? "He's been so guarded with all of his comments," Esiason says, "and he always has the right to change his mind."
Green Bay's final regular-season game, against the Detroit Lions, airs Sunday, Dec. 30, 1pm/ET, on Fox.
BASEBALL: Boston Dynasty, Part I
Remember those "1918" T-shirts that took the measure of Red Sox World Series futility? Two titles in four years have erased those bad memories, and now the Sox have their most balanced attack in decades. "The old baseball adage is true: You're only going to go as far as your pitching," says Fox's Tim McCarver. "The Red Sox never had that mantra. But now their success lies in their arms, not their bats — and that's unusual." The Twins' two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana may end up in Boston, joining an exceptional pitching staff led by the formidable Josh Beckett.
McCarver says the team has to make sure "the cauldron of Red Sox pressure" doesn't get to them. "When you're in the same division as the Yankees, from an ownership standpoint, from the players' and the fans' standpoint, there's never an ease involved."
Boston's season begins March 25 against the Oakland A's in Japan (TV coverage TBD).
NFL: Boston Dynasty, Part II
The New England Patriots won three Super Bowls from 2002-05 but never dominated the way they have this season. "They are easily the team to beat and should win it all," says Fox's Joe Buck, who calls coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady the best in the game and says even when the Pats aren't Super, "They're always that dangerous team that's lurking out there."
Super Bowl XLII airs Feb. 3 on Fox.
NBA: Boston Dynasty, Part III?
The Boston Celtics have won 16 NBA titles, but none since 1986. Yet the reinvented franchise has dominated the beginning of the 2007-08 NBA season and looks to be a legitimate contender. After winning only 24 games last season, the team's summer acquisitions of forward Kevin Garnett and guard Ray Allen helped them win 17 of their first 19 games and claim first place in the Atlantic Division.
"How quickly they've come together with this new group of players has been amazing," says TNT analyst Doug Collins. "This team has been irrelevant over the last few years, and now to see Boston back into the mix is very exciting."
With four titles since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs are looking to sustain their own dynasty. To do so, they'll first need to be the best team in Texas. Collins believes the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks will both grow into better teams after rough starts this season, while San Antonio needs to keep on keeping on. "The Spurs have great talent — this is a no-nonsense team," he says. "Tim Duncan does everything right, but I think [head coach Gregg] Popovich has a great feel on how to manage the regular season. I like their chances this year of repeating [a championship]."
A possible preview of the NBA finals? The Celtics host the Spurs Feb. 10 on ESPN.
BEIJING OLYMPICS: Who Will Be the Breakout Star?
With 302 medal events in the 2008 Summer Olympics, the competition for celebrity will be fierce. Who will be the biggest star of the Beijing Games? "If I have three names," says NBC swimming commentator Rowdy Gaines, "Phelps, Phelps, Phelps." Gaines believes Michael Phelps, who won eight medals (including six gold) in 2004, will not only match Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Games, but may get eight. "He could really have an 'off' meet and still win seven," Gaines says.
American sprinters Tyson Gay and Allyson Felix each won three golds at the 2007 World Track and Field Championships, and could duplicate those performances in Beijing. But the real spotlight will be on Chinese hero Liu Xiang, the reigning world and Olympic champion in the 110-meter hurdles. "We've almost adopted him as a favorite son," analyst Dwight Stones says of his NBC colleagues. "He doesn't talk smack, and it's awfully hard to dislike the guy or set him up as anybody from an evil empire. Can he pull it off in this incredible pressure cooker? That's a great story we can follow closely."
The Olympics run Aug. 8-24 on NBC and its cable networks.
MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Beware Cinderella
Any team hoping to become the Cinderella of the NCAA tournament must tap into its inner David. Forget the glass slipper, bring a slingshot. To knock off "the big guys, the Goliaths," Dick Vitale says, a team needs a strong backcourt and outstanding perimeter players.
Butler, which made the Sweet 16 in 2007, has already proven it can hang tough with teams from the power conferences. "With Mike Green and A.J. Graves, they're going to create havoc," Vitale says. "At Xavier, I think a star is being born in their coach, Sean Miller, and they're strong on the perimeter with Drew Lavender and Stanley Burrell." Davidson has Jason Richards and Stephen Curry, "one of the best long-range 3-point shooters" and son of NBA star Dell Curry.
Dickie V. says these teams aren't going to win a national championship, "but in the early rounds they'll create problems, go to the Sweet 16 and beat some of the so-called Goliaths, the superstars, the teams with the great, great visibility."
The NCAA tournament begins March 20 on CBS.
GOLF: Can Anyone Tame Tiger?
After winning seven tournaments in 2007, Tiger Woods will (once again) have all eyes on him. "With the courses they're playing in the Majors this year, there's every chance he could get a grand slam," says CBS golf analyst Nick Faldo. (Woods has won the Masters at Augusta four times, as well as five tournaments at San Diego's Torrey Pines Golf Course, site of the 2008 U.S. Open.)
"The question then is, 'Who can challenge Tiger?'" Faldo wonders. "Australian Adam Scott could step up, or some European hopefuls like Luke Donald [from England] or Henrik Stenson [from Sweden]."
Faldo can be forgiven for his European bias. He's serving as the continent's team captain for the '08 Ryder Cup, to be played Sept. 16-21 in Louisville (on ESPN and NBC). He also anticipates breakout performances by two British pros. "Ian Poulter and Justin Rose have a great friendly rivalry going on, and maybe they can inspire each other on to a win in America," Faldo says.
The year's first — and biggest — major, the Masters, runs April 10-13 on ESPN and CBS.
NHL: Don't Forget About Hockey!
The media-starved National Hockey League begins its NBC schedule on New Year's Day when the Buffalo Sabres host the league's superstar-in-the-making Sidney Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins — outdoors at Ralph Wilson Stadium (home of the NFL's Bills).
The league's best, including scoring aces Ilya Kovalchuk (Atlanta Thrashers) and Henrik Zetterberg (Detroit Red Wings), should keep the scoreboard busy at the All-Star Game, airing Jan. 27 on Versus.
WOMEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Three Games Not to Miss
The annual Connecticut-Tennessee game won't be played this year, but there are other marquee matchups worth watching on the road to March Madness:
• North Carolina hosts Maryland in a game that will likely decide the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title (Jan. 26, Fox Sports Net).
• In a rematch of last year's national title game, Rutgers travels to Tennessee (Feb. 11, ESPN2).
• Connecticut has edged LSU the past two years, so expect another tight one this season (Feb. 25, ESPN2).
TENNIS: Can Roger Master French?
The year in tennis should serve up predictable results on the men's side, while the women's game is erratic. Switzerland's Roger Federer is marching toward Pete Sampras' record for Grand Slams and needs two victories to tie at 14. "He's so intent on being an immortal," says CBS/NBC/ESPN analyst Mary Carillo. "He's definitely got some people who might worry him some, but I do think he will be making tennis history next year."
Federer won the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 2007, and Carillo says he could capture the one title that has eluded both him and Sampras: the French Open. "Federer is a very good clay-court player," Carillo says, "so you've got to like Roger's chances to figure out a way to win at least one of those things."
Meanwhile, "It's all a big jumble on the women's side," Carillo says. Who will challenge top-ranked Justine Henin? Rising stars Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic can be inconsistent, as are the Williams sisters. "Every time Serena or Venus wins a major," Carillo says, "you look at them and think, 'Why don't you do that all the time? It's very obvious you can!'"
The Grand Slam season begins early with the Australian Open, Jan. 14-27 on ESPN2.
BASEBALL: Joe Heads Out West
The Los Angeles Dodgers made their biggest free agent acquisition this off-season by signing Joe Torre, the future Hall of Fame manager who won four World Series titles with the Yankees. Torre will have his hands full with a team that finished fourth in the National League West division last season. Historically, Torre has always stressed the value of starting pitching, and he'd love to add an established starter to the crew of Brad Penny, Derek Lowe and Chad Billingsley. But mostly the Dodgers faithful hope Torre's calm presence and proven track record can turn the club around. Says Fox's Tim McCarver: "Any time you add Joe Torre, regardless of the team, it's an upgrade."
The Dodgers open against the San Francisco Giants on March 31 (TV coverage TBD).
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