THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR heads for Talladega for the 1000blubs.com 500

NASCAR heads for Talladega for the 1000blubs.com 500
Talladega. Getty Images.


This Sunday, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the baddest race track on the planet, Talladega Super-speedway. This is easily the most unpredictable track on the schedule considering how massive this racetrack is. The track is 2.66 miles in length, making it the largest race track on the schedule. This track is known for its three and four wide racing as each car comes equipped with a tapered spacer that restricts speed and bunches everyone up in one big pack. This has been the cause of many massive wrecks that sometimes involve half the field. Back in 2003, one of the largest pileups in history took place here after 27 cars were involved. There truly is danger lurking around every corner at this track and there is no safe space to avoid what they call "the big one." This will be the main point of intrigue come Sunday as each playoff driver looks to survive and keep their playoff hopes alive by staying out of trouble.

Last week at Dover, Kyle Larson went on to claim his first victory in over 75 races. In the final laps, Larson was able to hold off a charge from Martin Truex Jr and cruise to the checkered flag. Because of his win, Larson is now guaranteed a spot in the round of eight and one step closer to getting to race for his first championship. This couldn't have come at a better time considering how much trouble he has had at this track over the years. The last time he raced here, he ended his day on his roof and finished 24th. While a good run would definitely help him, I look for him to stay out of trouble and try to keep his Camaro in one piece.

One of the main headlines of last week's race was the mechanical problems that Joey Logano, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney each faced. Before the race even began, Logano broke an axle that would keep him the garage for 24 laps. Fan favorite Elliott was the next to break as his engine would go belly up after eight laps of racing. While Logano was able to get back out on the track, his teammate Ryan Blaney wasn't so lucky after his suspension quit on him on lap 297 causing him to retire early. So with all of these mechanical issues, many wondered what was the cause of these malfunctions? On this week's edition of Dale Earnhardt Jr's podcast, he and driver Darrell Wallace Jr both believed that the tracks concrete surface was to blame. The track is so rough on each of these cars and the wear and tear causes many mechanical and tire failures. Overall, I think a repave wouldn't be the worst thing considering how hit or miss the racing has been. I know that being one of the few concrete tracks on the schedule is part of their charm but I think it's time for a change.

After months of speculation, NASCAR finally gave the fans a peek at the "next gen" car that will be run in 2021. Ever since NASCAR announced that they would be rolling out a new model, many fans had some interesting ideas on what this new car would look like but when it was announced the car didn't look all that out of the ordinary but there were a few very noticeable differences including the new tires that will be eighteen inches instead of the normal fifteen we see now, the car will also feature a diffuser towards the bottom of the rear of the car like we see on the sports cars in IMSA. This will increase the downforce of a car to help increase drag and ideally keep the cars closer. While this is base design of what the car will look like, it is important to note that this is only a prototype of what we will see in two years as the Manufacturers will be building their own styles in the near future. The sanctioning body called on 2018 Daytona 500 Champion Austin Dillion to test the car at Richmond Raceway and he gave warm reviews to the new race car. He was quoted as saying "was a blast to drive and stops on a dime." This will definitely be interesting to see what is next and if this new car will offer any improvement on the racing we see now.

The driver that I have winning this weekend at Talladega is Alex Bowman. Over the last few weeks, Alex has been in the spotlight and while they may have not been for the best reasons he has really been fast over the last couple of races. Last week, he followed up his controversial second place finish at the roval with a third place at Dover. He has been sneaky fast and currently sits seventh in points. This track is also a place where he has shown speed as well, in the spring race he nearly claimed his first win until a caution came out on the last lap that kept him from getting around his Hendrick racing teammate Elliott. This week, I have a feeling Bowman will come around and continue to build on his momentum and capture his second win of 2019 and move on to the round of eight.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

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The Astros have their work cut out for them. Composite Getty Image.

Through 20 games, the Houston Astros have managed just six wins and are in last place in the AL West.

Their pitching staff trails only Colorado with a 5.24 ERA and big-money new closer Josh Hader has given up the same number of earned runs in 10 games as he did in 61 last year.

Despite this, these veteran Astros, who have reached the AL Championship Series seven consecutive times, have no doubt they’ll turn things around.

“If there’s a team that can do it, it’s this team,” shortstop Jeremy Peña said.

First-year manager Joe Espada, who was hired in January to replace the retired Dusty Baker, discussed his team’s early struggles.

“It’s not ideal,” he said. “It’s not what we expected, to come out of the shoot playing this type of baseball. But you know what, this is where we’re at and we’ve got to pick it up and play better. That’s just the bottom line.”

Many of Houston’s problems have stemmed from a poor performance by a rotation that has been decimated by injuries. Ace Justin Verlander and fellow starter José Urquidy haven’t pitched this season because of injuries and lefty Framber Valdez made just two starts before landing on the injured list with a sore elbow.

Ronel Blanco, who threw a no-hitter in his season debut April 1, has pitched well and is 2-0 with a 0.86 ERA in three starts this season. Cristian Javier is also off to a good start, going 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA in four starts, but the team has won just two games not started by those two pitchers.

However, Espada wouldn’t blame the rotation for Houston’s current position.

“It’s been a little bit of a roller coaster how we've played overall,” he said. “One day we get good starting pitching, some days we don’t. The middle relief has been better and sometimes it hasn’t been. So, we’ve just got to put it all together and then play more as a team. And once we start doing that, we’ll be in good shape.”

The good news for the Astros is that Verlander will make his season debut Friday night when they open a series at Washington and Valdez should return soon after him.

“Framber and Justin have been a great part of our success in the last few years,” second baseman Jose Altuve said. “So, it’s always good to have those two guys back helping the team. We trust them and I think it’s going to be good.”

Hader signed a five-year, $95 million contract this offseason to give the Astros a shutdown 7-8-9 combination at the back end of their bullpen with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly. But the five-time All-Star is off to a bumpy start.

He allowed four runs in the ninth inning of a 6-1 loss to the Braves on Monday night and has yielded eight earned runs this season after giving up the same number in 56 1/3 innings for San Diego last year.

He was much better Wednesday when he struck out the side in the ninth before the Astros fell to Atlanta in 10 innings for their third straight loss.

Houston’s offense, led by Altuve, Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker, ranks third in the majors with a .268 batting average and is tied for third with 24 homers this season. But the Astros have struggled with runners in scoring position and often failed to get a big hit in close games.

While many of Houston’s hitters have thrived this season, one notable exception is first baseman José Abreu. The 37-year-old, who is in the second year of a three-year, $58.5 million contract, is hitting 0.78 with just one extra-base hit in 16 games, raising questions about why he remains in the lineup every day.

To make matters worse, his error on a routine ground ball in the eighth inning Wednesday helped the Braves tie the game before they won in extra innings.

Espada brushed off criticism of Abreu and said he knows the 2020 AL MVP can break out of his early slump.

“Because (of) history,” Espada said. “The back of his baseball card. He can do it.”

Though things haven’t gone well for the Astros so far, everyone insists there’s no panic in this team which won its second World Series in 2022.

Altuve added that he doesn’t have to say anything to his teammates during this tough time.

“I think they’ve played enough baseball to know how to control themselves and how to come back to the plan we have, which is winning games,” he said.

The clubhouse was quiet and somber Wednesday after the Astros suffered their third series sweep of the season and second at home. While not panicking about the slow start, this team, which has won at least 90 games in each of the last three seasons, is certainly not happy with its record.

“We need to do everything better,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “I feel like we’re in a lot of games, but we just haven’t found a way to win them. And good teams find a way to win games. So we need to find a way to win games.”

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