NASCAR Cup Series Championship preview, picks

Keep an eye on Kyle Larson this weekend. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The time is finally here, this week at Phoenix a champion will be crowned for the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. It's been a long road with many twists and turns. There were 17 different winners, including three who captured their first career wins. The four drivers who will race for the title this week are Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, and Martin Truex Jr. Each of these drivers deserve to be here. This feels like one of the most competitive championship races we have had since NASCAR installed this format back in 2014.

For the second time, the season finale will be held at Phoenix Raceway. This will be the second time the Cup Series comes here this season. This track is a mile and a half in length with nine degrees of banking in the corners, which narrows out to about three degrees of banking in the front stretch. The race will feature a 750 horsepower package as we saw in the spring, so it will be a bit easier to pass. With this race being as important as it is, there will be qualifying and practice, to give the field and the championship drivers a chance at making their car better.

As I mentioned earlier four drivers will have a chance at the championship this week, the driver who comes in as the heavy favorite has to be Kyle Larson. It has been a dream season for the California driver. He has set numerous records, including most laps led in a single season. He has completely exceeded expectations and the craziest thing is that he probably should have at least two or three more victories. Larson has scored an incredible 402 stage points and because of this, he's had the easiest path to the championship race. Even when he hasn't needed to, this team has still gone out and won races. It would almost be unfair if they don't close it out and win the title. This five-team will easily be the driver to beat come Sunday, but he hasn't always had the best of luck at this track. While his numbers are good here, there has been a lot of heartbreak for him like when he was bulldozed out of the way by Ryan Newman in 2014 or when he received speeding penalty in pit-road here in the spring. If he's going to win this championship, Larson and his team will need to be perfect. He can't afford to have to drive through the field because of a bad pit-stop or a speeding penalty. Look for Larson to try and cap off a dream season with his first championship.

Larson's teammate and defending champion Chase Elliott will also be the fan favorite this week. This is a track that has been very good to him. Over the past three races, he has yet to finish outside the top ten, including his big win here last season. Elliott's path to the championship has been paved by consistency and wins on the road courses. While the consistency has been there, it seems as if he's kind of been the second fiddle to his teammate. Luckily though, they have been here before and can do it again. In the last race here, Elliott was in the top five but never really in contention to win. That's going to have to change come Sunday if he wants to win his second title.

Despite all the controversy, this has been an exceptional year for Denny Hamlin. While he's only won two races, he has been the model of consistency with an 8.8 average finish and 24 top ten's. That's better than anyone else in the field. The road to get here had plenty of bumps along the way including last week. In the closing laps, he tangled with Alex Bowman in turn four knocking him out of contention for a win and nearly out of the championship. But because of the number of points he accumulated, he was able to solider on and limp into the championship. He has also been really good at this racetrack, with back-to-back top-five finishes. This can finally be the year that he breaks through and wins that first championship.

Martin Truex Jr comes into the race as the fourth and final spot and what many would consider the underdog, but this is quite the contrary. Back in the spring, Truex went on to capture his first win of 2021 here. If anything, he should have the best chance, but in the past few weeks, the 19 has had plenty of close calls. Like at Kansas where he had a flat tire that he had to battle back from, or at Martinsville when he damaged his right front quarter panel after contact with Brad Keselowski. In both of these instances when it should have been over for him, he fought back and salvaged a good finish. If this team can keep up its tenacity as they have in the last round, it will be hard to count him out on Sunday.

The driver I am predicting will win the championship is Kyle Larson. This season he has simply been too good, he's been fast on every single type of racetrack on the schedule. Look for Kyle to complete the dream season and capture his first title.

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The Rockets got a steal at No. 3 overall. Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images.

With the Astros absorbing their worst loss of the season Thursday night at the Yankees, here's to the Rockets! Wait, what? It's only educated guess work, but in landing Jabari Smith out of Auburn the Rockets had a spectacular night. Heaven knows they have had very few of those the last two years. After having to settle for the third pick in the NBA Draft despite being the worst team in the league again, in Smith the Rockets got the best player in the Draft. Of course Smith could be an epic flop, it’s very inexact science. But Orlando taking Paolo Banchero from Duke first then Oklahoma City selecting Gonzaga beanpole Chet Holmgren second left the "surest thing" two-way player on the board. Through most of the run-up to the draft the six-foot-10 inch Banchero was most commonly projected to the Rockets. It's not as if he would have been a bad choice as a player. Banchero certainly could turn out to be the best player in this draft class. But his game is skewed toward his offensive skills, his fit in Houston would have been quite questionable. The also 6-10 Smith has shown the vastly better outside shooting ability, and is indisputably more athletic and better equipped to defend at a higher level and with more versatility. Jabari Smith is not going to be Kevin Durant or Kevin Garnett. Let's at least call it extreeeeemely unlikely given very few in the history of the planet come close to those guys, still, envisioning Smith providing some KD and KG level moments on both ends of the floor is pretty, pretty, pretty good.

The Rockets' defense was an absolute joke last season. Little to no improvement was shown as the death march of 2021-22 dragged on and on and on to its 20-62 finish. Frankly if Head Coach Stephen Silas can't demand/develop vastly improved D this coming season he'll deserve and need to be fired. The Rockets love Alperen Sengun, and his rookie season offense showed both flair and promise. Defensively he was one of many parts of the joke. Just 20 years old late next month so some improvement should come, but Sengun is slow. Quick twitch muscles, slow. Lateral movement, slow. He’s not long, not a leaper, not thick. Sengun will be hard-pressed to become an average defender. In today's game he's the kind of big who quality small-ball opponents play off the court. Banchero would have been a lousy defensive pairing with Sengun. Smith-Sengun has a chance. Smith as a small-ball center has potential. Christian Wood was a dog, not in a good way. Smith’s character grades are very high.

The seven-foot 194 pound Holmgren has a fascinating array of skills. He could be Rudy Gobert defensively with way better offense, or a skinny guy who can’t hack it physically. Had the Thunder taken Smith at two, Holmgren to the Rockets would have been interesting. Getting Smith to pair with Jalen Green as the tent poles of the Rockets’ still long way to go reconstruction is more encouraging. With due respect to all the other first round picks added in 2021 and 2022, what Green and Smith become individually and as a tandem is what will foremost determine how long the Rockets remain horrible. It could go pretty well for the duo and the Rockets could still be awful for multiple more years. A third consecutive losing season is virtual certainty. By the end of it though at least a few meaningful rays of light at the end of the tunnel need to be peeking through.

As for the other two first rounders added Thursday night, both are interesting darts at the board. Tari Eason out of LSU brings defensive chops and size (six-foot-eight) for his position, a combo that exactly zero returning Rockets have. Jae’Sean Tate plays really hard, but he’s a six-four forward. All their Josh Christophers, Garrison Matthewses, Kenyon Martin Jrs., and David Nwabas add up to very little.

No one smart really believes in Kevin Porter Jr. as a long term winning point guard growth stock. TyTy Washington should get some rookie run at the point. He’s the only non-worthless to the team ex-Kentucky point guard on the Rockets’ roster. Yes, John Wall and his 47.3 million dollar salary are still on the roster.

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