NASCAR at Daytona: Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview, picks

NASCAR at Daytona: Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview, picks
Kyle Larson got a big victory last week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.
NASCAR: Wise Power 400 preview, picks

The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series head for the sandy shores of Daytona Beach, Florida for the Coke Zero Sugar 400. This is the final race of the regular season, as there are now two spots available to race for a championship in the playoffs. Daytona is the most prestigious racetrack on the NASCAR schedule, winning here would be a huge accomplishment for any driver. The track is a two mile superspeedway so here anything goes. As we all know, avoiding the big one will be the primary goal of each driver if they want a shot at winning. There is a chance of rain in the forecast this weekend, so we could very well see them race on Sunday.

Last week, Kyle Larson broke out of his slump by capturing his second win of the season at Watkins Glen. On the final restart, Larson drove into turn one as deep as he could and moved his teammate Chase Elliott aside. This was controversial, as Elliott was seen venting to car-owners Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon. The team would hold an emergency meeting the next day to hash it out, and everything seems to be back in order at Hendrick Motorsports.

On Wednesday, Kurt Busch announced that while he may return this season, that he will not race for a championship in the playoffs. This has been tough to hear considering Busch was having a pretty good season with a victory. Over the course of the year, Kurt took some hard hits, including a head on crash at the LA Coliseum. There had already been plenty of questions as to if Kurt will return for next season, and unfortunately we might have our answer. It has been quite a career for the 2004 Cup Series champion, let’s hope Kurt is able to come a decision on his terms. Because Kurt is out, this means there are now two spots available in the playoffs. This definitely makes an easier path for Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr to get in on points, but if there is a new winner, one of them will be the odd man out.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Austin Cindric. While it’s difficult to predict who usually wins these types of races, taking the guy who won here last would be a good bet. Cindric has a knack for this kind of racing, as he also has the highest average finish among all active drivers on superspeedways. Team Penske has sort of become the team to beat on these superspeedway type tracks, and I don’t see that changing now. It is important to note that Cindric is locked into the playoffs so his motivation to win this weekend isn’t as high as it was back in February, but if he’s in the picture, I believe that he will have the best chance at taking victory.

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It's go time! Composite Getty Image.

96 games down, 66 games to go as the Astros tackle a fairly significant series in Seattle to open up the figurative second half of the season Friday night. It’s actually just over 40 percent of the schedule remaining. With the Astros having closed within one game of the Mariners in the American League West it’s the biggest series possible for them as the season resumes. But it’s not remotely make or break. Measuring by run differential the Astros should already be out front. They have outscored their opponents by 49 runs while Seattle is just plus-19. The actual standings can be explained in no small part by this comparison: in one-run games the Astros are a pitiful 7-17 while the Mariners are 19-14.

The spectrum of outcomes this weekend ranges from the Astros sweeping and leaving the Emerald City two games on top, to getting swept and heading down the coast to Oakland four games behind. Of note, the Mariners beat the Astros in five of the seven meetings to date this season. So if Seattle wins this series it clinches the season series and playoff tiebreaker should a spot come down to it. The Astros and Mariners have another series to come after this one, three games in Houston the final week of the regular season.

Trade deadline looming

What may be even more important than this weekend’s games is who gets what done between now and the July 30 trade deadline. With Justin Verlander clearly not close to returning, Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss both performance question marks, and both Ronel Blanco and Hunter Brown being asked to handle unprecedented workloads for them, the Astros’ rotation needs obvious fortification. The Mariners’ rotation is second to none in the American League and their bullpen is good. Seattle’s lineup is atrocious. The Chicago White Sox are on pace to be one of the worst teams of all-time. The ChiSox’ offense is a joke with a team batting average of .220. The Mariners’ team average is .219. Only the White Sox and pathetic Marlins are scoring fewer runs per game than the M’s.

The Mariners have 11 players with at least 100 at bats this season. Eight of them have an OPS of .690 or lower. Cal Raleigh has the highest at .734. The Astros have 12 guys with at least 100 at bats including Jose Abreu. Abreu, Chas McCormick, and Mauricio Dubon are the only .690 or worse OPS guys. Kyle Tucker is the Astros’ OPS leader by a significant margin, .979 to Yordan Alvarez’s .912. What’s that you ask? Who is this Kyle Tucker? 35 missed games and counting for “Tuck” with his leg bone bruise, with return not imminent. T-Mobile Park is a notably better pitchers’ park than is Minute Maid Park, but not enough to shrug off the Mariners’ offensive ineptitude. The Mariners team payroll is more than 100 million dollars below the Astros’ payroll. The Mariners have the clearly better farm system from which to deal. If Seattle doesn’t add offense, its ownership and front office will deserve a continued fade in the second half, on top of the Mariners’ 8-15 gimp into the All-Star break.

Don't forget about the Rangers

With the Astros and Mariners going at it this weekend with the division lead in the balance, a reminder that this is not a two-team race. The Texas Rangers rallying to take the final two games at Minute Maid Park last weekend sent up a flare that the reigning World Series Champions are definitely still in the picture. The Rangers sit four games behind the Astros, five back of the Mariners. If the Rangers manage to win their series in Arlington with the Orioles this weekend, they are guaranteed to gain ground on at least one team ahead of them. The Astros-Rangers season series sits tied at five wins apiece with three games left, it will be decided in Arlington the first week of August. The Rangers and Mariners play seven more times.

In broader view, as measured by opponents’ records, the Astros have the toughest remaining schedule among the three. Among the 30 big league clubs the Rangers have the fourth easiest slate left, the Mariners have the fifth easiest, the Astros have the 15th easiest. If the Astros ultimately are not to win the West, there is the Wild Card race to keep in mind. The Astros are seven games behind the Yankees, four behind the Twins, and three and a half back of the Red Sox. Those three currently hold the Wild Card spots. The Astros are also a game and a half behind the Royals. The Astros have already lost the season series and tiebreakers to the Yankees, Twins, and Royals. The Astros and Red Sox have all six of their meetings yet to come.

Remembering Ken Hoffman

This is my first column since the passing last Sunday of my friend and eventual colleague Ken Hoffman. I originally learned of Ken’s quirkiness and wit through his columns at the Houston Post. He was a big sports fan. Our friendship was driven in part by our shared passion for tennis. We played probably more than a thousand times over nearly 20 years. Tennis and baseball were Ken’s two favorite sports. His two favorite athletes were Roger Federer and Jose Altuve. Well, after he and his wife Erin’s son Andrew, who was a pitcher on Trinity University’s 2016 NCAA Division Three national championship-winning team.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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