The Left Turn

NASCAR heads for the windy city

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This weekend, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of Chicago for it's TheHouse.com400. Opened in 2001, Chicagoland is still one of NASCAR's newest tracks on the schedule. With the addition of the new rules package, the racing here at this track could very well be similar to the racing we saw earlier this year at Kansas due to the tracks being so similar.

Last season, this race featured one of the most memorable finishes in NASCAR history after Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson took part in one of the fiercest battles in history and for that reason, this race has been circled on the calendar for many drivers since testing. Darrell Wallace Jr. stated on Twitter that both this track and Kansas should be the ones to watch.

Last week, Martin Truex Jr went on to claim his fourth win of 2019 after thoroughly dominating Sonoma. He has continued to assert himself as the best driver at this racetrack as he has now won here three times. While it may have looked easy, the closing laps were no Sunday drive for the 2017 champion. he had to fend off his main rival and teammate Kyle Busch. When it was all said and done, the race was nothing really to write home about as he was able to drive away from everyone like he has been able to do all season. It will be interesting to see if there is a turnaround in this week's race.

One of the feel good stories of the week was the emergence of Matt DiBenndeto and Leavine Family Racing. He and his crew were able to claim their career best finish in fourth. It was truly a great site to see this team find success on a track as challenging as Sonoma. This finish was no fluke either as Matt ran around the top ten for the better part of the day. This couldn't have come at a better time as there has been many questions about what is next for this fourth year driver. Hopefully this run can be the catalyst for more success for this Texas run team. Owner Bob Leavine and his wife Sharon have been doing an exceptional job at getting this program to where it needs to be not only on the track but off it as well. Of all the other team owners, few have been as cordial and transparent with their fans like they have. It is good to see that this team is making headway.

The driver I have winning this weekend is Kyle Larson. As mentioned earlier, Larson appeared to have victory in his grasp last season until contact sent him into a spin. This is a track that he has done well at. In his four starts here, he has finished outside of the top 10 one time. This season, racing here will be much different. A lot of Kyle's results will be based on where he qualifies. This has been an area that he has excelled. I think with a good qualifying effort, Larson will be hard to beat here. Look for him to claim his first win of 2019.

(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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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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