NASCAR: EchoPark Automotive Grand Prix preview, picks

NASCAR is back in Texas! Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Austin, Texas for the EchoPark Grand Prix at the famed Circuit of the Americas. This is NASCAR’s second race here and if it’s anything like last season, there will be plenty of challenges for each driver. One major difference about this year's race is the weather. Come Sunday, the forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and no rain like we saw last year. Overall, the strategy is completely different, and the drivers won’t have to worry about switching to wet tires or visibility concerns. The race will be 68 laps which may not seem like a lot, but usually laps around this racetrack take about 2-3 minutes to complete. Because of its massive lengths and abundance of corners, this race will be tough on brakes. This is pretty standard on road courses, and it will be imperative for drivers to conserve them. We can expect a 3-4 pit stop race throughout the stages which end on laps 15 and 32 and then the final 36 laps, so we will see a lot of strategies play out on when to pit. Some drivers may try to split the stages by pitting twice, some will only pit once but at the end of the day, the driver who survives will more than likely go to victory lane.

Last week, William Byron picked up his third career victory at Atlanta Superspeedway. Throughout the day, the race was marred by tire failures and crashes, as there were 11 cautions and a whopping 30 cars that had damage when the race was over. It was known that chaos was a strong possibility, which is exactly what we got. In the end, the car that was upfront for the better part of the day did pick up the win. But it was frustrating to watch drivers like Ross Chastain and Ricky Stenhouse crash while leading the race. These tire issues are becoming a major problem for the sport, it seems like every week there is an issue. Hopefully, this can be sorted out before they get to the dirt race at Bristol in the next month.

Regardless of all the issues during the race, William Byron’s command of the field was impressive. It seemed like he was the pied piper, he led a race high 111 laps and was able to control the draft for most of the race. Byron has shown a lot of speed when racing in a pack and this week was no different. Atlanta was a nice rebound for Byron after a disappointing 18th place finish in Phoenix the week before. This week’s race will be a little bit more of a challenge though, his average finish on road courses is 18.50. He will have a lot of work to do to build on last week's win.

Throughout the first five races this season, no one has been on a hot streak like Ross Chastain. In the last three races, he’s finished no worse than third, including an amazing comeback at Atlanta. His team Trackhouse racing has dramatically improved from a top 15 team to a race-winning team, and it seems like that victory is coming soon. COTA is a track where he’s been fast at, last season he was able to brave the elements and record an impressive fourth-place finish. Chastain is sure to be a contender come Sunday.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Chase Elliott. When picking a favorite for this race, it wasn’t difficult to decide who’s had the most success on road courses. Over the past 12 round course races run since 2019, Elliott has won half of them, so why would this week be any different? It’s been a frustrating season for the 2020 champion, from getting crashed out by his teammate Kyle Larson at Auto Club to spinning out in the closing laps at Phoenix. There have been plenty of bumps in the road for him, but this is the perfect place for him to rebound and turn his luck around. Chase will be the car to beat when the green flag drops.

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The Astros will look to capitalize on the Rangers' big loss. Composite Getty Image.

Injuries can be a hindrance or a help. Perspective is everything. Whether you're the guy injured, the one stepping up, the teammate of either, or the opponent of either, there's a way to look at things. You can take the positive approach: choosing to see things as a blessing in disguise and look forward to what the future holds. You can also take the negative approach: seeing how bad things are and how they'll torpedo what you're trying to do.

When news came down that Rangers' pitcher Jacob deGrom will miss significant time due to needing Tommy John surgery, I imagine how hard it must've hit their organization. The video of him tearfully talking about how he's going to miss time and whatnot must've been rough for them to watch. As an Astros fan, and admitted hater of all things that far north of The Wall, I didn't shed a single tear. Tough break!

The Astros have dealt with injuries every year since they've become a powerhouse contender. Every year, a prominent piece of this team misses time. And every year, this team finds a way to keep on winning. During the pandemic season, they still managed to make it to the ALCS. Starters, relievers, position players, suspensions, firings, sanctions, regime changes…NOTHING has stopped this train from rolling down the tracks!

If anything, it's motivated them to play harder and forced guys to step up. One could argue it's helped more than hurt. We've seen guys not only step up, but show out when thrust into the spotlight. Remember when Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, and Lance McCullers Jr went down? Remember when guys left via free agency? Remember when there was a regime change due to scandal, then another due to creative/business differences? Pepperidge Farm remembers.

Do I feel bad for deGrom? Of course. I wouldn't wish injury on any athlete. Well, not most of them. There are a few that…another day, another topic. I hope he comes back better than before. That would make beating them next season and the season after much better because they'll be at full strength. The Astros have constantly risen to the occasion. The Rangers will have to do the same. The difference is, the Astros have done it time and time again. The Rangers haven't won the division since 2016, and haven't been to a World Series since 2011. They don't have the same track record.

That's why I believe this season will be another Astros division title win. They have the firepower to continue to forge ahead, while an injury like this could derail the Rangers. They tried to buy their way to relevance this past offseason. As of this writing, they're 4.5 games up in the division. Other teams that have tried to buy their way into the postseason and/or a World Series aren't doing so well. The Yankees (-7.5), Angels (-9), Mets (-6.5, and Padres (-8) are all teams who've thrown money at attempts at winning and are all behind in their respective divisions.

Refer back to this article in August or September. I guarantee the Rangers will join that list and the Astros will be back in their rightful spot: atop the AL West and headed to the annual AL Astros Invitational, aka the ALCS.

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