NASCAR Cup Series Championship preview, picks

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 Braves blew the game open against Hader on Monday night. Photo by Logan Riely/Getty Images.

When the Astros signed Josh Hader to anchor the back of the bullpen with Ryan Pressly and Bryan Abreu, we thought the club might have the best 'pen in MLB.

But at this early stage in the season, nobody is confusing these guys with Octavio Dotel, Brad Lidge, and Billy Wager.

Heading into the ninth inning on Monday night, the Astros handed the ball to Hader trailing the Braves 2-1. Instead of keeping the game close and giving the Astros' offense one more chance, the Braves teed off on the closer putting the game out of reach and ultimately winning 6-1.

Hader has one save on the season with an ERA over nine. Which has us wondering, do the Astros have a Hader problem?

Don't miss the video above as ESPN Houston's John Granato and Lance Zierlein weigh in!

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