NASCAR: Hollywood Casino 400 preview, predictions

Start your engines! Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Kansas Motor Speedway this week for race two of the Round of 8. After Kyle Larson earned a championship birth at Texas, the rest of the field is as tight as it gets. Currently, the championship four as of now would be Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin, and Kyle Busch. This week, we can expect to see a heavy focus on the top eight coming this week. Kansas has provided some great finishes over the year, including a battle between Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano which saw Logano take the checkered flag and advance to the championship race. Aerodynamics will play the biggest role in this race as it's a mile and a half track and while it might be tough to pass, the drivers will all be closer together. It will be all about timing, and the driver who makes the right move at the right time will more than likely win.

Last week, Kyle Larson went on to claim his 8th win of the season at Texas Motor Speedway. There was plenty of drama for the playoff contenders as Martin Truex Jr and Joey Logano both had issues that ended their race. While Texas has been known as sort of cookie-cutter mile and a half track over the years, this week there was plenty of drama and things to talk about.

Another playoff driver who garnered some controversy this week was Denny Hamlin. After getting involved in a run-in with Chase Briscoe, Hamlin channeled his inner Connor McGregor on the radio after the move, "Like who the [Expletive] are you?" when talking about Briscoe on the radio. While overall, this didn't affect his overall race, it was strange to see him get so triggered about a driver that was only racing him hard. This could be a problem here in the next few races if he gets too invested in other drivers. This has been an issue for a while with Denny Hamlin, he always drives like he is the only driver out there and nothing is ever his fault. It's caused a lot of problems for him in the past, like 2010 when he seemed to have the championship locked up but got nabbed speeding on pit lane at Phoenix and could never recover. Regardless, he is still the driver that poses the biggest threat to Kyle Larson in these next few races.

The driver who isn't in the Round of 8 but has been the most impressive is William Byron. These last two weeks he has been so fast and probably should have won both races at the Roval and at Texas, but an untimely caution or unfortunate circumstances have cost him a shot at victory. He will for certain be a championship contender in 2022 if he continues to run like this. He will also be one to watch this weekend at Kansas, as he has finished in the top ten in his last two consecutive starts. He starts ninth come Sunday.

The driver I have winning this weekend is Chase Elliott. As everyone knows Elliott is on the outside looking in, he is currently eight points out. The biggest reason as to why he isn't in the top four right now is not because he had a bad result, but because he only scored three stage points as opposed to Busch who scored 11. That has made all the difference. This week I see him changing all that and coming out and having a big weekend where he at least wins a stage along with the race. Here at Kansas no active driver has a higher average finish in the past five than Elliott. Plus, he has a victory here back in 2018. Look for Chase to join his teammate Kyle Larson in the championship race with a win. He rolls off fifth this weekend.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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