NASCAR: Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview, predictions

NASCAR: Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview, predictions
Brad Keselowski is the driver to keep an eye on. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The time has come, the final race before the playoff cutoff at the world's most prestigious racetrack, Daytona International Raceway. This is truly one of the wild card races of the season and there will be some desperate drivers in the field as this is their last chance to get into the post-season. With this track being known for its thrilling three and four-wide racing, we are setting up for an all-timer come Saturday night. The cars will be modified from their usual 510 horsepower package to 450 and the "wicker bill" on the spoiler will also be removed. This is being done in an effort to slow down some of the massive runs of momentum the cars pick up and to give the drivers more reaction time to figure out how to defend their position on the track without causing a melee like we have seen so many times over the years. In the grand scheme of things, it shouldn't have too much of an effect on the finished product though, as each car still will reach speeds of 190-195 miles per hour.

Last week, Ryan Blaney went on to capture his second win of 2021. While Blaney did have a fast car for most of the day, it never really appeared that he had the car to win. He started the race from the third position but by mid-race, he seemed to be stuck at the tail end of the top ten. It wasn't until a caution with 20 laps left when his car came alive and he was able to get out in clean air and take the victory.

When the race was over, he was quoted as saying, "Michigan's pretty much a matter of running wide open and playing the air game. I hate that we have to race that way, but that's what you have to do here." This led to a debate as it usually does among fans about NASCAR's aero package. Personally, I agree with Ryan Blaney and think the drivers should be given more credence when it comes to how these cars drive and not the fans because if there is one thing we know about NASCAR fans, it's that they truly have no idea what they want. This race was a prime example of that. You have many fans on social media that talk about how they want the racing to be closer, and when it is, they talk about "artificial drama". It is very exhausting to see this debate week after week on what NASCAR should do and while yes the fans are important, they aren't the ones in the race car.

The battle for the final spot in the playoffs all hinges on Austin Dillon, anyone below him will have to win to advance. Currently, Dillon sits five points below the cutoff line behind his teammate Tyler Reddick. These two seem to have a hard time finding any momentum. Last week it seemed like Austin had a car that was capable of winning the race until he was involved in an incident at the end of stage two with Brad Keselowski. With the #3 car being out, this would have been a great opportunity for Reddick to extend his lead and make up more ground, but he also crashed trying to make a four-wide pass with fourteen laps left in the race. Both of these drivers have a fairly large gap on the cars below the cutoff line but at a track such as Daytona anything can happen. And there could be a surprise winner and with Kevin Harvick essentially locking himself in on points, these two need to really have a consistent run come Saturday. This will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the race.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Brad Keselowski. It's hard to find a better driver on superspeedways then him. When his protégée Dale Earnhardt Jr retired, many of us wondered who was the next great superspeedway racer and in the past five years it's been clear that Brad was next in line to take over. No active driver has more wins on tracks like these than he does with seven victories including a win at Talladega this year. He's also won at Daytona as well. For some reason, it seems like Brad always knows exactly what moves to make and when to make them. I don't know if I'd say he can see the air like Dale Sr did, but he can at least catch a passing glance when it comes to the draft. While there have been many triumphs for him, there has also been heartbreak as he's been involved in numerous big accidents here including the last lap crash in the 2021 Daytona 500 with his teammate Joey Logano. Many would consider this move by Longano to be the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to Keselowski staying at Penske. If Brad can stay up front he will be in a great position, it also helps tremendously that he has a satellite teammate in Matt DiBenedetto starting ahead of him, so those two can work together in the draft to get to the front. Look for Brad to try and get the ship righted for the playoffs with a victory.

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Welcome back, Justin! Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images.

Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander will make his season debut Friday night at the Washington Nationals.

Houston manager Joe Espada made the announcement Wednesday.

“Getting him back is huge because it brings a level of confidence to our team, a boost of confidence that we’re going to get someone who’s been an MVP, a Cy Young (winner) on the mound,” Espada said. “It's (good) for the morale and to get stuff started and moving in the right direction.”

The three-time Cy Young Award winner opened the season on the injured list with inflammation in his right shoulder. He made two rehabilitation starts, the first for Triple-A Sugar Land on April 7 before Saturday’s start for Double-A Corpus Christi.

Espada wouldn't say how many pitches the 41-year-old would be limited to but said they'll keep an eye on his workload.

“We've got to be careful how hard we push him early,” Espada said. “I know he’s going to want to go and stay out there and give us an opportunity to win, but we've got to be cautious of how hard we push him early in the season.”

Verlander wasn’t thrilled with the results in his rehabilitation starts, but he said Monday that those games were valuable in getting him prepared to come off the IL.

He allowed seven hits and six runs — five earned — in four innings against Frisco on Saturday. He struck out three, walked one and threw 51 of 77 pitches for strikes.

Verlander allowed six earned runs and struck out six while pitching into the fourth inning for Sugar Land on April 7.

The Astros have gotten off to a tough start with Verlander and fellow starters Framber Valdez and José Urquidy on the injured list. They enter Wednesday's games last in the AL West with a 6-13 record.

Espada hopes Verlander can be the boost the team needs to get on track.

“It’s good to get him back in the rotation,” Espada said. “With what he means to this club just to get him back on track, getting some innings from him (to) build our rotation with the pieces that we need to move forward is exciting.”

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