NASCAR: Bank of America ROVAL 400 preview, predictions

Keep an eye on Chase Elliott this weekend. Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images.

It's the final race of the Round of 12 as the championship playoff picture continues to take shape. This race has a tendency to provide plenty of chaos and with the rain that could be on the way, we could be in for a wild weekend. With it being an elimination race, there is a great chance we see a lot of drivers do everything they can to try and advance. Come Sunday, 11 drivers will have to race as their season depends on it, as only 22 points separate second from ninth. This is shaping up to be a race to remember.

Last week Bubba Wallace finally breakthrough for his first career victory after rain halted the race. Overall, while the racing was pretty incredible, it seemed like everyone knew the race was not going to go its scheduled distance. Before the race was stopped there were multiple big wrecks taking out the likes of Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Tyler Reddick, and Kyle Busch. Even if the circumstances were unfortunate that the race couldn't be completed, this was a huge moment for the sport as Wallace becomes the first black driver since Wendell Scott in 1964 to win at the Talladega Superspeedway.

The battle for the eighth and final transfer spot is as tight as it's been all season. As I alluded to earlier, Kyle Larson who is second in points is only +22 points ahead of the ninth-place cut-off line. The only driver that is safe is Denny Hamlin after his huge win two weeks ago in Las Vegas. Currently, Kevin Harvick, Christopher Bell, William Byron, and Alex Bowman are the four cars out. The driver who is sitting on the bubble is Kyle Busch. After his abysmal 27th place finish at Talladega, he is now only nine points safe. To miss the round of eight would be a huge disappointment for a team that had championship aspirations. This is also a track where he's struggled immensely. In the three races here, Rowdy has yet to finish better than 30th. That won't cut it if he wants to move on to the next round.

It was an expensive day for Hendrick Motorsports as all four cars sustained crash damage. It started when Kyle Larson crashed in the tri-oval early in the race. It wasn't long before his teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott joined him in a massive crash in turn four, then William Byron completed the superfecta after a fiery crash. For Larson, he has accumulated so many stage points that he will probably be okay, but for his teammates, this week is going to be dire. Alex Bowman is in must-win territory as he's 12th in points and 84 points back, William Byron also needs a victory as well to move on, so it's safe to say at least one of the Hendrick four won't make it.

With all that being said, the driver I have winning this week is Chase Elliott. When it comes to road courses, Chase has truly become the king of the road. In his past six starts, he's finished no worse than fourth. Last season he dominated this race as he scored 49 points and led 27 laps en route to his third consecutive victory at the Roval. After a bad week at Talladega, there is nothing better than rebounding with a victory. Look for him to be a threat for a four-peat this Sunday as he starts 8th.

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The Astros are utilizing a 6-man rotation. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros should schedule an Old-Timers Game, if not annually maybe every other year. Only the Yankees have regularly played Old Timers Games and it’s a highlight in the Bronx every season. The Astros have plenty enough history to welcome back an ample number of guys to make for a fabulous event. Maybe they could tie it into their now annual Hall of Fame Weekend. Anyway, don’t you feel that if Jose Altuve took part in an Old Timers Game in 2050 he’d bang out a couple of hits, and then if the Astros played him in the regular game he’d line one more hit somehow, at age 60?

After missing the first 43 games of the season while recovering from his broken thumb, Altuve went 0 for four in his first game back, but has since been generally fantastic with his OPS through nine games played at 1.013. It won’t stay that high, but Altuve is a direly needed upgrade to the Astros’ offense which has been utterly mediocre. Offense is the reason the Astros continue to look up at the Texas Rangers in the American League West. The Rangers’ offense has been fantastic, outscoring the Astros by a whopping 100 runs through the first third of the season.

As the regular season entered its middle third this week, the Astros are in the middle of playing a game in 17 consecutive days. It’s their longest stretch of the season without an off day. They are inserting Ronel Blanco as a sixth starting pitcher in the rotation for a couple of turns. The point of mixing in a sixth starter isn’t that the Astros are teeming with guys who belong in a big league rotation. The 29-year-old Blanco is not a notable prospect. This is about lightening the load a little on two guys: Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown.

In becoming a rotation mainstay last season, Javier blew past his previous biggest season workload by nearly 50 innings. He’s on pace to go another 25 innings beyond that this year without even accounting for the playoffs. Hunter Brown last year set his professional high with 130 innings pitched encompassing work with the Space Cowboys and Astros. Brown is on pace for about 170 innings this regular season. That’s a significant jump, and of course the Astros are hoping for another postseason of multiple rounds. Javier, Brown, and Framber Valdez are the three most critical pitchers on the staff, and the Astros hope they remain healthily so for several more years.

Lance McCullers’s latest recovery setback makes his plight increasingly sad. Well, except for him on payday. The odds now lopsidedly favor McCullers never again pitching a near fully healthy and effective season. His only one to date was 2021 (until he broke down in the playoffs), the year before his five year 85 million dollar contract kicked in. McCullers pulls down 17 mil this year (And again next year. And in 2025. And 2026), exactly two and a half times what Framber Valdez makes. I reckon Framber’s representation is aware of this, as it is of the five year 63 million dollar deal the Astros struck with Cristian Javier. Framber is more than three years older than Javier, but has been better, and can hit free agency after the 2025 season, the same time Javier could have gone to market.

Timing isn’t everything but it darn sure can matter. The Astros’ two best relief pitchers through May were Hector Neris and Phil Maton. Neris enters June with a 1.19 earned run average, Maton even better with a teeny-weeny 0.68 ERA. Maton has been especially amazing, given that last year while not pitching very well he posted his career best ERA at 3.84. His 2022 ended ignominiously when after giving up a hit to his brother Nick in the regular season finale, Phil took the ding-a-ling of the week award by breaking his pitching hand punching his locker, sidelining him for the postseason. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. Now Maton is up for Best Pitcher (per inning worked). Both Neris and Maton were James Click acquisitions. Both become free agents after this season.

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Four games with the Angels at Minute Maid Park through the weekend mean the amazing Shohei Ohtani is in town. It’s “Sho-time” on the mound Friday night in a doozy of a pitching matchup with Framber, with Ohtani batting in at least three of the four games. In one player the Angels have a pitcher as good as Cristian Javier and a hitter better than Kyle Tucker. And the Angels will probably miss the playoffs again anyway. And then lose Ohtani in free agency. After the Angels series the Astros are on the road next week. They start with four games at Toronto against the Blue Jays’ very potent lineup, then it’s three at Cleveland vs. the Guardians whose offense has been pathetic so far this season.

Walk this way

Geek Astro factoid of the week: Jeremy Pena drew two walks in Tuesday’s win over the Twins. In his rookie season, Pena had only one two walk game, also in May, also against the Twins. Tuesday’s bases on balls finally got Pena into double digits for the season. He has just 11 walks drawn (largely explaining his weak .307 on-base percentage) vs. 50 strikeouts.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it goes up 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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