The Left Turn

NASCAR Coca Cola 600 preview

NASCAR Coca Cola 600 preview
Kevin Harvick keeps winning. Last week it was the All-Star race. Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

This Sunday, The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for Charlotte Motor Speedway  for the famed Coca Cola 600. This is race is one of the “Crown Jewels” on the schedule and is always one of the more anticipated races of the season. NASCAR’s field of 40 will do battle for a grueling 400 laps which equals out to of course 600 miles.

Last week, NASCAR decided to take a different approach for the non-points paying All-Star race. The cars came equipped with a smaller spoiler on the decklid and the ever polarizing restrictor plate. Overall the race was met by critical acclaim from all groups of people  that cover and watch the sport as the modifications and rule changes brought a whole new element to a race that had become tedious to some. While the cars were much closer together and there was more passing and battles for position, at the end of the night Kevin Harvick was able to continue his run and take his sixth victory of the season

This week we snap back into reality. All of the cars will go back to the regular aero package that they have been running all season. The racing that we see this week at Charlotte will be drastically different than what we saw at the all-star race as the cars will be much faster and more spread out. Thanks to its length, fuel should play a big factor in determining the outcome as well. In fact, last year’s Coca Cola 600 saw Austin Dillon claim his first career victory after Jimmie Johnson ran out of gas with two laps remaining. This race is so long that almost every year it comes down to who can go the longest on a tank of fuel and you can almost bet that we will see the same thing this year. Look for the driver who can somehow save the most amount of fuel to go to victory lane at the end of the night.

Some of the favorites going into this week are all four drivers at Joe Gibbs racing. On Thursday, the Gibbs team makes up for three of the first four starting spots with Kyle Busch qualifying first, Denny Hamlin third and Erik Jones fourth. While Gibbs and his team have been Kevin Harvick’s main competition this season, the only driver that has won has been Kyle Busch. Earlier in the season, he was able to win three consecutive races at Texas, Bristol and Richmond. This weekend, Busch will try and capture his first Coca Cola 600 victory and he has a better chance than anyone. Even though Charlotte is one of the few tracks he has not won (unless you count the all-star race last season which is not a points paying event)  look for the M&M’s Camry to be a major factor.

The driver that I have going to victory lane this weekend is Denny Hamlin. As I stated earlier in the article, the only driver for Joe Gibbs that has won this season is Kyle Busch and he will definitely be a contender come sunday but this week I just see Hamlin having a breakthrough weekend. Like his teammate, Hamlin has also never won here at Charlotte but he has always been near the top of the charts. In his 25 starts, he has eight top-five’s and 16 top 10s so he has proved that he can run up front here but in the past he just has never quite been able to close the deal. I don’t think this will be the case here, Hamlin has a fast race car from what we have seen in both practice and qualifying. Look for Hamlin to go to victory lane come sunday.

A good sleeper for this race is Jamie McMurray. If you are a fan of the sport, you know that 2018 has been the worst season of McMurray’s career. He is currently 24th in points and has only had two lead lap finishes all season, but this weekend McMurray seems to be in prime position to have a bounce back race. He started the weekend off on the right track with a seventh place qualifying effort and is at a track where he has run well at in the past. In fact, if it weren’t for his  success at this race track, Jamie Mac might not even be where he is today. In 2002, McMurray captured his first career victory here at the fall race as he was able to hold off a hard charging Bobby Labonte. In his second NASCAR start, McMurray went to victory lane. Look for McMurray to try and rekindle that magic come sunday in the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevrolet.

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

 

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome