THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR heads for the high banks of Michigan

Chase Elliot
Jerry Markland/Getty Images


This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of Michigan International Raceway for the Consumer Energy's 400. This is the second race of the season here and while it is still the same high banked two mile oval, there will be many different characteristics then there were here in June. Over the course of the past few weeks, NASCAR has been using a traction compound called PJ1 to help give the tracks more grip and so far it has worked to perfection as there have been some incredible finishes. Coming to a track as large as Michigan with extra grip should really provide for some high stakes racing come Sunday and with the new aero package. Now obviously this race won't be like what we see at Daytona or Talladega but I think there is a real possibility that it could be very similar. This should be a good race if it keeps up with the trends of the last few weeks.

Last week, Chase Elliott went on to claim his second win of the season and his second consecutive victory at Watkins Glen. Both of his victories were almost identical as he was able to once again outrun Martin Truex Jr in the closing stages of the race. Although Truex gave him quite a run, this was still easily the most dominating performance in Elliott's career. Of the 90 laps ran, Elliott led all but ten and went on to not only win the race but sweep both stages as well. This was very different from what we are accustomed to seeing with a Chase Elliott victory. When he won races, it was usually because the other contenders either had mechanical issues or a pit-road speeding penalty that eliminated them from winning. It was definitely a welcoming sight for fans everywhere to see Elliott put a whole race together and further establish himself as a championship contender.

While Elliott and his crew were celebrating their win, other drivers weren't as happy when the race was finished. This race was filled with short fenders and even shorter tempers as there were multiple retaliations all throughout the race involving some of the sports biggest names including Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson. The first incident came after Kyle Busch and Willam Byron tangled in the first corner. In response, Busch punted Byron through the grass entering the Innerloop nearly sending him into a spin. During a yellow, Byron was urged by legendary crew-chief Chad Kanaus to "Knock the [Expletive] out of him or there was going to be a problem" and that's exactly what he did. Byron smashed into Kyle's back bumper after Busch stood on the breaks. This nearly destroyed the front end of his #24 car and ultimately eliminated Byron from contention for the victory. This wasn't the only incident Kyle was involved in. He was also involved in an altercation with Darrell Wallace Jr as well. In nearly the same place he hit Byron, he decided to drive through Wallace as well. After the wreck, tracked him down under caution and hit him in the right rear quarter panel spinning him head first towards the wall. Fortunately for him, Kyle was able to save it and somehow rebound for an eleventh place finish. Overall, while it is clear he is easily the most talented driver on the track, Kyle Busch has not done himself any favors going towards the playoffs considering all of the drivers he has made mad. While I highly doubt this will carry over, these drivers simply don't forget about instances like these. This should be an interesting storyline to follow throughout the season.

Kyle Busch comes into Michigan as the odds on favorite to win this week as he has the highest average finish of all active drivers here in the past five races. While his results here have been great, Busch has only won at this track once back in 2011. If there aren't any issues with some of the drivers he upset last week, he is a lock to run around the top five. Look for Rowdy to be the car to beat come sunday.

My pick to win this week is the elder Busch brother Kurt. Overall, this season has been a revitalization for the veteran driver as he has singlehandedly carried his team to success and while some drivers sort of fade off into the sunset at this stage of their career, Kurt is having one of his best seasons. Behind his brother, Kurt has the second highest average finish here in the past five races including a runner up finish here back in June. Even though there have been struggles in the last few races for him, I look for Kurt to continue his stellar season and claim his second win of 2019. He should be fun to watch come Sunday as he looks to bank more bonus points going into the playoffs.

(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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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*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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