UNITED STATES GRAND PRIX WRAPUP

Kimi Raikkonen wins in Austin; delays Hamilton's title

Kimi Raikkonen had a big win. Chuck Flournoy

It was a gorgeous Sunday in Austin with everything looking as though it was set up perfectly for Lewis Hamilton and the Silver Arrows of Petronas Mercedes AMG. Starting Second on the grid was the number 7 car of Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen. Ferrari had rolled the dice and placed Kimi on the Ultra Soft tires to start the race- opposite of what the rest of the top five had chosen. The gamble paid off as Kimi was able to take the lead through turn one. Lewis harassed Kimi for several laps but settled down knowing that Kimi would have to pit sooner due to his softer tires.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Vettel who needed to stay within 7 points of Lewis to stay in the World Championship hunt, suffered a spin from 5th to 15th place after contact with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull, seemingly dashing any hopes of postponing Lewis’ 5th title.

Ricciardo’s chances of a podium finish ground to a halt as his engine failed, putting the entire grid into a Virtual Safety Car (VSC)  situation- which requires drivers to slow down and maintain gaps. The radio call to Hamilton was to do the opposite to Raikkonen- pit if he stays out, stay out if he pits. Raikkonen made a dodge towards pit lane but pulled away at the last moment as Hamilton went in for fresh tires. This caused Hamilton to lose only 9 seconds behind Raikkonen as opposed to the normal 20 due to the grid being slowed by the VSC.

Raikkonen pitted a few laps later leaving Hamilton in the lead. The race once again looked like it was Hamilton’s to lose, but the radio call from Ferrari to Raikkonen told him not to worry, Hamilton would have to pit again.  

During this action at the front Sebastian Vettel methodically made his way up to fifth place, meaning that Hamilton would have to at least finish second to win the title this day.

The prescience of Ferrari then came to pass as Hamilton’s tire blistered and he went in for fresh rubber at lap 38. When he came out he was in third place by 9 seconds and 12 from first. He quickly closed the gap leading to a furious battle between the top 3 of Raikkonen, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. On the second to last lap a slight error by Verstappen allowed Hamilton to pull alongside but brilliant defense by the Dutchman caused Hamilton to run wide thus preserving the positions. Vettel managed to pass Hamilton’s teammate Valteri Bottas into 4th place as Kimi crossed the line first.

Kimi Raikkonen scored his first victory in 113 Grand Prix to the uproarious cheers of the crowd. In so doing, he also managed to pass his Finnish countryman Mika Hakkinen into 15th on the all-time wins list. Sebastian and Ferrari live to fight another day and the championship moves on to Mexico City where now Hamilton only needs to score a further five points to win the championship regardless of any other outcomes.

 

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Framber Valdez injured his ring finger on Tuesday. Composite image by Jack Brame.

That sure escalated quickly. The news on Framber Valdez went from bad to vastly worse for the Astros with the fractured ring finger on his pitching hand concerning enough that season ending surgery is on the radar. Valdez is/was no sure thing to have been a first time quality full season starting pitcher, but seemed a decent bet after his maturity-driven albeit short season breakout 2020.

37-year-old Zack Greinke is the only member of the Astros' starting rotation to have thrown even 130 innings in a big league season. Greinke showed notable slippage in 2020. A by-product of the funky short season, or Father Time making a move? If Greinke further erodes, uh oh. It's all question marks behind him.

Lance McCullers got to the big leagues in 2015. Six years later McCullers has zero seasons under his belt in which he both pitched well and stayed healthy. If he hits that exacta in 2021 it's great for the Astros of course, greater for McCullers with free agency arriving at season's end. Particularly confounding with McCullers is that over his career he's been outstanding at Minute Maid Park, and basically sucked on the road. Career earned run average at MMP: 2.51. Career ERA everywhere else: 4.99. That's absurd. It's certainly not as if MMP is some great pitchers' park.

"Crafty" is typically applied to left-handed pitchers. Jose Urquidy seems a crafty right-hander. But since missing the 2017 season recovering from Tommy John surgery Urquidy has topped 100 innings worked once. Cristian Javier has some electric stuff and showed very well as a rookie. Javier has never thrown 115 innings in a professional season.

The odds are long against McCullers, Urquidy, and Javier all pitching well and staying healthy all season. Valdez didn't come close to making it to Opening Day. The best internal candidates to replace Framber (or anyone else) are Luis Garcia and the extremely-hyped thus far dud but still just 23 years old Forrest Whitley.

Woeful Rockets

It certainly isn't paying homage to James Harden that has the Rockets on a 13 game losing streak as they mercifully take their All-Star break. They're just that bad. Watching them is like watching a helpless fly tossed into a spider web game after game. Out of the break the Rockets play at Sacramento Thursday. The Kings are no good, but the Rockets are worse. A loss there all but guarantees matching the Houston Rockets' longest ever losing streak of 15 since the following night they play at Utah. If you care about them the Rockets are painful to watch. Hapless, helpless, hopeless. Their best shot at accelerating what might be a years long path back to relevance is to keep on stinking. The Rockets have the third worst record in the NBA. The three worst teams have equal chances at getting picks one through four in the draft. It's a 14 percent shot at number one, a 52 percent shot of being in the top four. The fourth worst team has a 48 percent chance of picking in the top four. If the Rockets are not in the top four, they lose their pick to Oklahoma City as a payoff of the awful Chris Paul-Russell Westbrook trade.

Watt signs with Cardinals

J.J. Watt could have least acknowledged "Of course the money the Cardinals offered had plenty to do with me picking them!" Off an 8-8 season in which they faded down the stretch the Cards have an interesting squad with some serious upside, especially if Kyler Murray makes a leap in his third season at quarterback. But no way are the Cardinals presently a first tier Super Bowl contender. We don't know for certain who Watt's other "finalists" were and what they offered. Seems a lock that none of them offered 23 million dollars guaranteed or two years 31 million total. Money is another scoreboard and J.J. is a huge winner on it. No one should ever blame a player for going for every dollar he can get. But Watt can't honestly say the best shot at a Super Bowl was his top priority then sign with a team which last had a winning season in 2015 and in Kliff Kingsbury has a guy who has accomplished nothing meaningful as a Head Coach at either Texas Tech or Arizona. Doesn't mean it can't happen in the desert, but there had to be better teams interested if a ring shot was of paramount importance.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Les Miles, what a slimeball. LSU, what a slimy institution in its handling of serial sexual misconduct in its football program

2. NBA All-Star Game Sunday. In 1993 more than 22 million people watched. Last year, 6.8 million. Not sure 5 mil watch Sunday.

3. Greatest ever NFL free agent signings: Bronze-Packers, Reggie White Silver-Buccaneers, Tom Brady Gold-Saints, Drew Brees

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