THE LEFT TURN

Here's everything you need to know about NASCAR's midweek racing

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The Cup Series returns to Darlington for the Darlington 500k. This will be an important race in NASCAR history as it will be the first race to ever be run on a Wednesday. This is a huge milestone for the sport considering there has never been a race run this late in the week. For years, the idea of racing during the middle of the week had been floated around but it took a global pandemic to finally convince NASCAR to pull the trigger. Considering that the race will be on in prime-time and that there isn't much going on in the sports-world, all eyes will be on Darlington. The field will be set with Ryan Preece and Ty Dillion on the front row as both drivers finished 20th and 19th.

On Sunday, Kevin Harvick drove off into the sunset en route to his fifteenth career win. While Harvick did lead a race-high 159 laps, the story of the race was Hendrick Motorsports and what appeared to be their breakout race. In the early stages of the race all four team cars occupied four of the top five spots as Jimmie Johnson took the lead from Brad Keselowski with his teammate's William Byron, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott behind him. Jimmie and his teammates appeared to be in position for a great result until lap eighty-nine when Johnson ran into the lapped car of Chris Buescher sending him into the backstretch wall ending his day.

After this, it was the young William Byron's turn to find misfortune as he would suffer a blown tire sending him around and ending any chances of him getting his first win. Even Chase Elliott ran into trouble as well after he was nabbed for speeding off pit-road, he would however recover to finish fourth. The only Hendrick driver who really had a clean race was Alex Bowman as he spent most of the day in the top three. While the results may not have been exactly what Rick Hendrick and his team would have hoped for, Sunday's race was definitely a breath of fresh air for the struggling team. They will be the team to watch come Wednesday.

Lost in all the storylines, one pleasant surprise was John-Hunter Nemechek and Tyler Reddick and their impressive 6th and 9th place finishes. For Nemechek, this is not only his first top ten finish but the first top ten finish for his team on a track that isn't Talladega or Daytona. The second generation driver has shown flashes of potential in all of his other previous starts but to come to arguably the toughest race track in America and run as good as he did really speaks volumes to how talented this young man is and what he can do in the future. His rookie counterpart Tyler Reddick also had a great showing as he went on to finish 6th. In his opportunities in the cup series, the California native continues to impress fans and drivers alike as he continues to run near the top-5 and top-10 on a weekly basis. I look forward to seeing how he follows this up.

Racing wasn't the only thing that made its comeback on Sunday as both Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth also made their return as well. As we all know, Newman was involved in one of the scariest accidents we have ever seen. Because of the injuries he sustained, he missed three races but because of the break, Newman had time to heal and miraculously was able to return to racing. For most of the race, he ran around the top ten until spinning out in turn 1 on lap 254. Despite all this he was able to rebound and finish sixteenth. Matt Kenseth was also impressive in his return as well as he finished tenth. What made this so impressive was how long was out and how much the sport has changed in his absence. For both of these drivers to run as well as they did really shows how talented these drivers are. It will be fun to watch how they do come Wednesday.

The driver I have winning is Kurt Busch. After an impressive third place showing on Sunday, Kurt has shown a lot of speed this year and has been one of the most consistent drivers on the grid. Over the last three races, he has yet to finish worse than third. The 2004 champion is primed for a breakthrough, Look for him to capture his first win here and secure his spot in the playoffs.


(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats)

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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

Can't get enough Astros coverage?

Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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