THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR heads for the Valley of the sun in Phoenix

Joey Logano. Getty Images.


This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for ISM Raceway for the ISM 400 in Phoenix, Arizona. This is NASCAR's semi-final race before the championship race at Homestead. Many would consider this one of the most important races of the season considering it decides who will get to race for a championship. This track is a mile and a half oval that races like a short track. Last season, this track was reconfigured and completely changed the landscape. The Finish line was moved all the way to the front stretch and both the corners were inverted. This should be interesting should we see someone try to make a last second pass now that they have more time to pull it off.

Last week, Kevin Harvick went on to win his fourth race of the season after passing his teammate Aric Almirola. This race was a wreckfest, there were plenty of big names to crash including championship favorites Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. During the weekend, Texas Motor Speedway track officials added a tire compound to try and add more grip to the race track. This did not sit well with the cars as we saw many just spin out by themselves. The trouble area seemed to be turns three and four as that was where the majority of the wrecks were. Many fans were not happy with the product on the track but if it did do one thing - it allowed for some newer drivers to run up front such as Daniel Suarez and Willam Byron. All together though, the cream rose to the top and Kevin Harvick still had a fairly dominant race as he led 119 laps before winning and advancing to the championship race at Homestead.

As we draw closer to Homestead, many wonder what has been going on with Kyle Busch. As many know, it has been June since the 2015 NASCAR Champion has won a race and since then he has just kind of been around. He has had many moments to forget during this time such as when his engine blew at the Charlotte oval or when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas but because of the massive amount of points he has gained all throughout the season, he has been able to stay in the top four. Regardless of where he is in points, it is clear that he is in a slump and this team is doing everything they can to get him out of it as we get closer and closer to Homestead next week. We will see how he responds this week at the track he has won the last two times they have come here.

The championship picture definitely looks pretty much the same as it has been over the past two seasons as Martin Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano make up the top four spots. While Truex and Harvick are locked in with victories at Martinsville and Texas, the focus shifts to third and fourth as both Busch and Logano hold firm. After a disastrous weekend at Texas, Denny Hamlin finds himself 20 points out of the top four. While 20 points may seem like a lot to make up, it is actually fairly manageable. Should he go on to win both stages and Logano not finish top 10, he would make up the difference and move into a tie with Logano for the fourth spot. He could also finish in the top 10 in those stages as well and make a big dent in the points should Logano run into trouble but that will be tough considering how good he runs on a weekly basis. The drivers behind Hamlin are Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. While Elliott crashed in the early stages and was never really a factor, Kyle Larson on the other hand looked like he had a car that was capable of contending for the victory. On lap 241, Larson entered pit-lane for his pit-stop and everything went off without a hitch until Bubba Wallace spun out in turn two catching Larson on the tail end of the lead lap eliminating any opportunity for a win. This caution led many to speculate that Wallace spun himself out on purpose to get a caution and not go a lap down but this has not been proven as Wallace had a flat tire before the spin. Out of the three, the driver that came out looking the best was Blaney. By no means was it the day Blaney and his Penske team would have liked to have had but overall the No. 12 had a pretty respectable race. Throughout the day, Blaney's car was not handling well at all but this team battled back and went on to a top 10 finish. It will be interesting to see how he will respond at Phoenix this week.

The driver that I predict will win this week is Denny Hamlin. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Denny has a steep path to climb to get back into the final four and a win is the only guarantee he can race for a championship. Overall, this has not been a track that he has been able to put up the best numbers but I think with the added pressure looming, this should be the car to beat. It will be interesting to see what car owner Joe Gibbs does to try and get Hamlin back into the top four considering his teammate Kyle Busch is one of the two standing in his way. Still I look for the #11 Fedex Toyota Camry to go to Victory lane and get back in the championship hunt.

(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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Houston is back in the win column

McCullers Jr. spins a gem as Astros get a much-needed win over Giants

Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

After getting swept by the A's in Oakland to end a road trip with a five-game losing streak, the Astros returned to Houston to try and get back on track. To do so, they'd need a win against the Giants on Monday night. Here is a quick recap of the series opener:

Final Score: Astros 6, Giants 4.

Record: 7-9, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (2-1, 6.10 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Logan Webb (1-1, 2.81 ERA).

Houston builds up an early lead

The early goings of Monday's game went very similar to the last time Lance McCullers Jr. took the mound. He would have a terrific first three innings while his offense gave him an early lead. The first run came in the bottom of the second, with Yuli Gurriel reaching base on a one-out double, moving to third on a wild pitch, then scoring on an RBI-single by Carlos Correa.

Correa would take part in a four-run inning in the third, as Houston would score two on a two-RBI ground-rule double by Michael Brantley, another on an error, then Correa's second RBI of the night, a groundout to bring in a run and make it 5-0. Unlike the last start in Arizona, where the roof opened and McCullers Jr. fell apart in the fourth, he was able to make quick work of his opponent for a 1-2-3 frame. As he kept recording scoreless innings, Martin Maldonado added another run to the lead with a one-out solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, making it 6-0.

McCullers Jr. takes a no-hitter into the seventh

While the Astros were building their lead, McCullers Jr. was spinning a gem on the mound. He allowed just one baserunner through the first six innings, which came on a hit-by-pitch. He entered the seventh with a no-hitter in progress, but the Giants would get their first hit of the night to end the no-hit bid.

Regardless, the start was precisely what McCullers Jr. needed to restore his confidence after the disastrous inning he had in his last appearance. He would go on to complete the seventh inning before Houston would go to the bullpen with the large lead in the eighth. His final line: 7.0 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 5 K 0 HR, 1 HPB.

Houston gets back in the win column despite more struggles by Josh James

Josh James entered out of the bullpen for the top of the eighth but allowed the first run of the night for San Francisco via a solo home run with one out to make it 6-1. He would complete the inning and then return for the top of the ninth. He would have another rocky inning, issuing a leadoff walk before a single and double would make it a four-run game at 6-2, still with no outs in the inning and runners on second and third, prompting another call to the bullpen.

Dusty Baker would bring in his current closer, Ryan Pressly, to try and finish the game, now in a save situation. Pressly would retire the first two batters he faced before allowing a two-RBI single to make it 6-4, but would eventually get the final out to get Houston the much-needed win. With the victory, the Astros moved back into second place in the AL West standings.

Up Next: The middle game of this three-game set will start Tuesday at 8:10 PM Central. The Giants, working with a fluid rotation, have not yet fully decided on their starter, while the Astros will get another start from Brandon Bielak (2-0, 0.87 ERA) who will look to repeat the success of his five-inning, no-run start in Arizona last week.

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