THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview

Daytona was exciting in February. The night race this weekend should be as well. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This Saturday, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of Daytona for the annual Coke Zero Sugar 400. This race is one of the most prestigious races on the schedule and many fans of the sport consider it to be one of the crown jewels of the season.

The track is easily one of the most famous in all of the world  due to its three and four wide racing and its unpredictability. You never know what can happen when NASCAR comes here; in fact this track has given us some of the biggest upsets in the sports history, like when Derrike Cope passed Dale Earnhardt for the victory in the 1990 Daytona 500 or when Jimmy Spencer outran Ernie Irvan for his first victory in 1994. At Daytona the only thing to expect is the unexpected and this week should be no different.

Last week, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch had one of the most memorable battles in NASCAR History. On the final lap, Larson attempted to pass Busch in the second corner but after he failed to complete the pass, he made contact with Busch. After this Busch brushed the outside retaining wall giving Larson the lead temporarily but in turn three, Busch was able to get to the back bumper of Larson and pushed him aside as he captured his fifth victory of 2018.

While Larson was not able to hold him off, he did managed to recover and finish second. All day the racing we saw was excellent. There were 24 lead changes and lots of storylines all throughout the day such as the lapped traffic, the sweltering heat that hit the Chicagoland area and of course loose wheels.  As much grief as NASCAR fans give Brian France and the powers that be, this time they got it right.

The biggest disappointment of the race had to be Aric Almirola. Early on in the race, it appeared as if he had the car to beat. He went on to win the first stage and lead more laps than anyone with 70. All the stars seemed to be aligning for him but on lap 142, a loose wheel set him back a lap. While it was a big blow to his chances he still had plenty of time to make up for it. By the final stage, he had steadily clawed his way back into the top ten but in the closing stages, due to ANOTHER loose wheel Almirola was relegated to a dismal 25th place finish. Regardless of the finish, he went out and proved that his success this year was no fluke and looks to be in prime performance to do what his predecessor Danica Patrick couldn't do and  win a race this year. Look to hear about him later this season and in this article.

Alex Bowman was another driver who deserves a shoutout. He continues to exceed expectations as he went on to score his sixth top 10 of 2018 last sunday. When it was announced last year that Bowman would take over for Dale Earnhardt Jr, there was an enormous amount of pressure that came with it and he has gone out and done exactly what he is supposed to do and more. He currently sits 16th in the “playoff” points standings and continues to improve week by week. Look for Bowman to blossom into a great race car driver in the next year or so.

The favorite going into this race is once again Brad Keselowski. As I have written before, Brad is always hard to beat when there is a restrictor plate race. Some would even say he has picked up where his former mentor Dale Earnhardt, Jr left off. At both Talladega and Daytona, he has a combined total of six victories - the most amongst all active drivers. He was also third quickest in practice on Thursday and if that’s any indication as to how he will run, look for Keselowski to be one of the top contenders in the race on Saturday.

The driver that I have winning is Almirola. Over the course of his career at Daytona, Almirola has experienced both the highest of  highs and the lowest of lows. He was able to score his first and only victory here in 2014 after the race ended prematurely due to rain and was also  on his way to a victory in this year’s Daytona 500 before being turned head on into the wall by Austin Dillon on the final lap. He continued to run well on Thursday as he was second quickest in practice behind his teammate Clint Bowyer. Look for Almirola to finish what he started in February in the 500 and take the checkered flag on Saturday.

My sleeper pick for this weekend is Michael McDowell. Coming into this race, McDowell is listed at 100/1 odds to win and while he may not win the race this week, I think that there is a good chance that he is able to finish in the top 10. Not only was he 12th quickest in practice on Thursday but during the last two times that he has raced here, he has finished fourth and ninth. I can see him getting his best finish this week like he did last year because for one, it’s Daytona and anything can happen here and also because he is one of the more underrated restrictor plate drivers. If he and his teammate David Regan can work together to get to the front, it is very possible that we can see the Front Row Racing team get their first victory since 2013 and McDowell get the first win of his career. Look for McDowell in the number 34 K-Love Ford to have a shot at going to victory lane.

(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)

 

 

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The Astros have JV this year, and Yankee Stadium will be packed. Composite image by Jack Brame.

How’s that New York, New York song go, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere? The AL West leading Houstonians are about to find out just where they stand among baseball’s elite. The Astros start a 4-game series tonight against the AL East first-place Yankees at Yankee Stadium, then a 2-game set against the NL East first-place Mets at Citi Field, then back home for a single game against the Yankees.

New York, New York indeed. And you can throw another New York in there for an encore.

When the dust clears, the Astros could be the best team in baseball or merely a good, solid team … just not the Yankees in the American League. Or the Mets in the National League.

The Yankees have the top record in the AL East, 51-18, a dozen games ahead the second-place Blue Jays. The Mets, even after dropping two to the Astros this week at Minute Maid Park, stand at 45-26, 4.5 games up on the Braves.

The Yankees and Mets have the two best records in the Major Leagues, with the Astros knocking on the door at 43-25.

It’s not yet July, but the next seven games could be the most important, interesting stretch of 2022 for the Astros, maybe for all of baseball.

Remember last year when the Astros visited Yankee Stadium, their first trip to The Bronx after the sign-stealing scandal broke? Yankee fans were lurking for the Astros like the Van Buren Boys waiting to mug George Costanza.

It was a different year last year for sure. The Yankees were barely over .500, headed for a third-place finish in the AL East. Didn’t matter, cold-blooded New Yorkers were out for vengeance. They remembered 2017 when they believe in their souls that the Astros were undeserving, big fat cheating champions and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve stole the AL MVP election from Aaron Judge. There seems to be a lot of that going around. Also with no evidence. Turns out that Altuve wasn’t one of the garbage can gang.

It also was baseball’s Covid season. The Yankees allowed only 10,500 fans to attend those games against the Astros last year. And they had security staff patrolling the ballpark ordering fans to wear their face masks. The only time fans lowered their masks was to eat or drink.

Or yell “F-Altuve” or “F-Astros” at the top of their New York lungs. They’re loud to start, and 10,500 fans sounded like a packed stadium. It could be a decibel-breaker tonight at Yankee Stadium.

It was brutal last season. Fans brought signs laced with profanity. They got personal with Astros players. Fans were dressed in homemade garbage can costumes. Party City doesn’t sell those. I watched small children yell the F-word and turn to their parents for a high five.

What a treat for Astros fans, seven games over eight days, all against dreaded powerhouses from New York. A dying sport? Half empty stadiums in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Miami? A vacant house in Oakland? Nobody’s ghosting baseball in Houston.

The Astros are loaded for bear this week. Their pitching is set up perfectly. Framber Valdez starts the opener tonight at Yankee Stadium, followed by Justin Verlander, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy. Luis Garcia and Valdez are slated for the Mets at Citi Field. The bullpen is firing on all cylinders.

Then, one week from today, it’s Verlander vs. Gerrit Cole at Minute Maid Park. Game of the Year. Where the pitching rubber meets the road. TK, Blummer and Julia, get ready for World Series level ratings.

It’s go time. The only thing that could make that game any bigger and better – if it were a Tuesday Dollar Dog Night.

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