THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: FireKeepers Casino 400 preview, predictions

NASCAR: FireKeepers Casino 400 preview, predictions
Keep your eye on Kyle Busch this weekend. Photo by Wiki Commons.

This week, NASCAR heads to Michigan International Speedway for the Firekeepers Casino 400. This track is a two-mile oval with eighteen degrees of banking in the corners. With this race being a high downforce/low horsepower race, we can expect to see more cars running in a pack, and it should have a lot closer racing. Last season, we saw a fantastic battle between Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, so there is a good chance we see racing similar to that this year.

Last week, AJ Allmendinger shocked the racing world when he went on to capture his second career victory on the inaugural Indy Road Course. This victory may have seemed like an upset but AJ has been a road course ace for as long as he's been racing, so it was going to just be a matter of time before he nabbed a victory. What made the win so triumphant was the circumstances of how he got here. For starters, the team Kaulig racing is running a partial schedule. The last time we saw a part-time team/driver win a race was back in 2013 when Brian Vickers did it at New Hampshire. This had to have been a big shot in the arm for a team that will be running all of the races in 2022. They went out and proved that they will be a force to be reckoned with.

While AJ and his crew were celebrating, many were on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. The beginning of the race was relatively clean, there were no cautions in the first two stages of the race, and it seemed like we were heading for another Kyle Larson victory. But on lap 74 all it took was one piece of debris for it all to go haywire. For the better part of the day, turn seven was a bit of a hassle as drivers would hit the curb and launch into the air, but there weren't any accidents until Martin Truex Jr spun out with about five laps to go. Strangely enough, there was no caution and as a result, nine cars crashed including Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and Christopher Bell. As a sanctioning body, NASCAR has been making way too many mistakes over the last few races and they need to do a much better job at rectifying them. There was absolutely no reason for there not to be a caution after the initial crash from Martin Truex Jr. To make matters worse, they then assessed two ridiculous penalties to Chase Briscoe and Bubba Wallace after they were both forced off the racing surface and had to merge back on to the racetrack. Overall, there will be a lot of improvements NASCAR will have to make when they come back to this track next season.

The playoff battle took a bit of a hit in one direction last week as teammates Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick both were involved in incidents. While Reddick was able to solider on to a twenty-first place finish, Dillon wasn't so lucky as he crashed out of the race and finished an abysmal thirty-first place. What made the battle at the bottom of the playoff grid so much more interesting was the prospect of a Chase Briscoe victory knocking one of them out, and it nearly happened as he was leading the race in the closing stages until being forced off the racetrack by Denny Hamlin and penalized for cutting the course. In a display of desperation, Briscoe hooked Hamlin and spun him out to regain the lead. NASCAR sent him to the tail end of the lead lap and parked him for ignoring the black flag. Even if Briscoe didn't win and Reddick continued to maintain his spot in the playoffs, it just goes to show how quickly things can change when it comes to the playoff battle. Look for more drama come Sunday.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Kyle Busch. When you look at his record in these types of races, it is incredible how fast he has been. In his last ten starts on the 550 horsepower tracks, his worst finish has been tenth place. As we all know, Kyle was really struggling to find speed last season after the pandemic kind of threw a wrench in things. Well now it seems as if he has found his groove again. In the last five races, he has either scored a top-five, a victory, or has crashed out while running in the top five. When this team is clicking the way it has been, they are hard to beat, and now they are playing with house money at a track that he has been consistent at over the last five years. Look for Rowdy to go to victory lane come Sunday.

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Jose Abreu looks lost at the plate. Composite Getty Image.

It’s a long baseball season, sure the Astros have started 4-8, and there are plenty of fingers to point around. But there’s no need to push the panic button.

Not yet.

Last year, the Astros didn’t start much better – they were 5-7 after a dozen games. It just seemed different, though. Nobody was wringing hands over the slow start. After all, the Astros were the defending World Series champions, coming off a 106-win season and figured to make mincemeat of the American League West again. Business as usual.

This year is different. The Astros are losing games in very un-Astros-like fashion. While the starting pitching has been surprisingly fine, at least the starters healthy enough to take the field, the bullpen has been a mess. The back end relievers, supposedly the strongest in all of baseball, have been disappointing. Bryan Abreu’s earned run average is 5.79. Ryan Pressly’s ERA is a sky-high 11.57 and closer Josh Hader, the best shutdown in the bigs, is at 6.00. The Astros are losing games late.

The Astros starting rotation is comprised mostly of seat-fillers. The Astros are sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers to be declared fit for battle. McCullers’ contribution to the team in recent years has primarily been confined to H-E-B commercials.

Impatient fans and copy-hungry media need a target to blame for the Astros’ slow start and they’ve zero’d in on first baseman Jose Abreu.

For good reason. Abreu, 37, a former American League MVP, is being paid 19.5 million this year and next. He is having a miserable time at the plate. Originally slated for No. 5 in the batting order, now dropped to No. 7 and sinking in the west, Abreu is hitting a paltry .088. But that number actually is deceptively positive. He has three hits (all singles) in 34 at bats, with 12 strikeouts, no home runs and no RBI. Frankly one of Abreu's singles was a pity hit from a friendly scorekeeper who could have given Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. an error on Abreu’s weak grounder Tuesday night.

We can go all-analytics and brain-busting stats to explain Abreu’s troubles at the plate. But let’s use simple baseball language: Abreu is horrible. He’s done. Maybe it’s time for the Astros to cut bait. He is untradeable.

Abreu had a disastrous 2023 season, batting .237, the lowest average of his 11-year career. But after 12 games last year, he was hitting .271, not bad at all. Or as Larry David would say, pret-tay, pret-tay, pre-tay good.

This year he’s fallen off the end of the Earth. Fans groan as he swings meekly at breaking balls outside the zone. Or he fails to catch up to 95 mph-plus. Or he can’t connect on low inside pitches. Look, when you’re batting .088, it’s all bad.

Last year, the Astros actually had two, as Little Leaguers put it, automatic outs in the lineup. Abreu hit .237 and catcher Martin Maldonado blasted .191.

This year, it’s a tight battle between who’s the worst of the worst. Maldy is hitting .091 with two hits in 22 at bats and no RBI for Abreu’s old team, the Chicago White Sox. Abreu is hitting .088 for Maldonado’s old team, the Astros. This could go down to the last week of the season.

If Abreu is still with the Astros at season’s end. The Astros are no longer the high exalted dominant force in the American League West. They can’t afford an .088 hitter in the lineup. They can’t play eight against nine.

It didn’t help when manager Joe Espada recently said, “I got a ton of confidence in Abreu. I'm not going to talk about strategy. José Abreu has been a really good hitter for a very long time, and I have 100 percent confidence in José that, at some point, he's going to start hitting.”

How long is at some point? Didn’t Astros fans go through this last year with manager Dusty Baker refusing to sit Maldonado despite Maldy killing rallies in a tight pennant race?

The Astros don’t have a strong support system, especially backing Abreu at first base. But there are options. Mauricio Dubon is a jack of all trades. He could play first. Despite the funny line in Moneyball, first base statistically is the easiest position to play in baseball. Backup catcher Victor Caratini can fill the gap until the Astros sign a free agent first baseman.

Or the Astros could do something that would light a fire under fans: call up rookie Joey Loperfido, who’s belted five homers and driven in 13 RBI in 10 games for the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

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