THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR FireKeepers Casino 400 preview

Chase Elliot is still looking for win No. 1. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

This week, the Nascar Monster Energy Cup Series  heads to the Michigan International Raceway for the FireKeepers Casino 400. This track is two miles and length and has turns with 18 degrees of banking. Due to the track being as big as it is, the speeds here are usually higher here than most other places on the schedule.

Usually, we see three and four wide racing here especially on the restarts. Last year, Kyle Larson capitalized on a late restart and was able to make one of the most memorable passes all season as he passed both Martin Truex Jr and Erik Jones to take his third victory of the 2017 season. Look for a late race restart to play a major role in deciding who wins this race considering the last three times they have raced here, there has been a caution in the final two to 10 laps.

Last week at Pocono, Martin Truex Jr. Claimed his second victory of 2018. With this victory, Truex cemented himself as the third championship contender behind Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch and while Truex was a contender all day, as usual,  Kevin Harvick was the car to beat. He led a race high 89 laps and won the second stage but during the closing stages, it seemed like he just couldn’t keep pace with Truex or Kyle Busch.

My pick to win was Kurt Busch, and this did not turn out the way that I had hoped. Busch appeared to be on his way to a top 10 finish but due to problems with his radio communications device, he was relegated to 19th. While this weekend was a major disappointment for him look for this weekend's race to possibly be one where he gets back on track considering he has won at Michigan three times.

Jimmie Johnson appears to be rounding into form after last week's race as he was able to score his sixth top 10 of the season. It is clear that this has been the season to forget for the 48 team but now after a fifth place finish at Kansas two weeks ago and an eighth place finish last week Johnson appears to at least almost be back to his old self.

This week may be a little bit more challenging though considering Michigan is one of Johnson’s most difficult tracks. While he has achieved some level of success here in the past, he has struggled here as of late. in the last four races, Johnson has an average finish of 12.75 and has zero top fives.  They will definitely have their work cut out for them this week as Johnson and his team try to claw back into contention for the championship.

The favorite this week is easily Kyle Larson. He has virtually owned this place ever since he got his first career win here in 2016. In fact over the last three times that we have came here Larson has won each time. Anytime they come to a track like Michigan, Larson either wins or finishes in the top five. Look for this weekend to be no different, as not only is Larson the resounding favorite but he is also my pick to win on Sunday.

The reason why Larson has been so successful on tracks like Michigan is because the track is so wide and  the drivers are able to run with more throttle than the other tracks. Larson comes from a racing background where throttle response is important as he was and still is one of the top sprint car and open wheel drivers in the world. Michigan gives him a chance to kind of go back to his roots and even though by no means is Michigan International Speedway anywhere close to the same type of dirt tracks we see Larson run on, the approach and the way drivers use the throttle are very similar. Look for Larson to claim his fourth victory in a row this weekend at Michigan.

The other driver to watch out for this weekend is Chase Elliott. The frustration appears to be mounting for Elliott fans and fans of NASCAR alike, The third year driver has competed in 91 races and he still has yet to win. Unfortunately this is beginning to be his reputation amongst some of the people that watch the sport. Is it fair? Not at all, at this point he could have at least five or six wins but as I have said earlier this year, Elliott just doesn’t seem to have any luck when it comes to the closing stages of a race but luckily for him and fans alike, this weekend Elliot goes to a track where he has had great runs before. He has a 3.50 average finish including two second places finishes in 2016 and 2017. Look for Larson and Elliott to battle it out as they both try to get Chevrolet back into victory lane in 2018.

(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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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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