THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Cup Series at Indy: Verizon 200 picks, preview

Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch failed post-race inspection last week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

This week, the NASCAR Cup Series heads for the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Verizon 200. This is the second time they will be racing on the road course configuration, and this time the track will be much improved from last year. When we last saw them race here, it was a complete disaster. Entering turns four and five, there were a set of curbs that would launch the cars into the air. This took out several of the contenders such as Kyle Busch, William Byron and Joey Logano. Thankfully, track officials caught wind of this and took out the curbing that caused all these issues. We should see a much cleaner race than we did last season.

Last week, it appeared that Denny Hamlin went on to score his third victory of 2022 and his seventh career victory at Pocono. While it started off rocky after he spun early in the race, everything came up aces for him. They had great pit-stops, a race winning strategy, and Hamlin even got his revenge on his rival Ross Chastain. It was the perfect day for the #11 team as he and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch took the checkered flag in first and second. When the race was over and all the celebrations were done, both Busch and Hamlin's cars failed post-race inspection and their win was vacated. This was the first time since 1960 that a winner was disqualified in the Cup Series. The culprit? A piece of clear tape over the right-front fascia. While this doesn’t seem like a lot, this can drastically change the aerodynamics of the car. NASCAR has been explicitly clear that they will not tolerate any teams modifying the bodies of these race cars, and Joe Gibbs Racing learned the hard way.

Michael McDowell would also receive a massive penalty for a similar infraction, he would be assessed a 100 point penalty and would also lose his stage and playoff points as well. He would fall from 20th to 26th place in the standings. He will have to win if he wants to make the playoffs.

Kurt Busch will miss this weekend's race at Indy after suffering a concussion in practice last week. This has been one of the most difficult news items to process. He has had such a huge impact on this sport and has been a massive part of 23XII’s success. Let's hope he is back in the car here soon.

The driver I have winning this week is a bit of a wildcard, but I am taking Austin Cindric. While it seems like a bit of a surprise, Cindric has a lot of track time here at this racetrack and on road courses in general. It has been an up and down last four races for the young rookie, but he’s scored two top ten finishes at Road America and at Nashville. He’s also been extremely fast on road courses, as he’s finished at least in the top ten on each of the road courses they have run this year. He will need a bounce back win just in case there are more than sixteen winners and his Daytona 500 victory won’t suffice. I look for him to bring the #2 Ford Mustang back to victory lane come Sunday.

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Mattress Mack and the Astros host Pearland Little League at Wednesday night's game. Photo by LittleLeague.org

Sure, it’s impressive that the Astros have made four World Series appearances in recent years, but they’re not alone. There’s another baseball team around here that’s also headed to its fourth World Series since 2010.

Pearland defeated Oklahoma, 9-4, on Tuesday to win the Southwest Regional and qualify for the Little League World Series starting Aug. 17 in South Williamsport, PA.

Most fans and media say the Little League World Series is held in Williamsport, but it’s South Williamsport, just a 5-minute stroll across a bridge over the Susquehanna River in north central Pennsylvania.

Pearland is on a torrid 13-game winning streak that swept through district, sectional, state and regional tournaments to earn the Little League World Series bid.

Here’s how difficult the road to the Little League World Series is. There are 15 teams in MLB’s American League. If the Astros finish with one of the two best records, they’ll have to win two playoff series to play in the World Series.

Little League is a little bigger than MLB. Little League is the largest youth sports organization in the world, with 2.5 million kids playing for 180,000 teams in more than 100 countries on six continents.

Pearland, representing East Texas, had to defeat All-Star teams from West Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, New Mexico, Arkansas and Colorado to win the Southwest Regional. The Little League World Series will host 20 teams - 10 from the U.S. and 10 from international regions.

If you have children that play Little League, or you’re just a fan, attending the Little League World Series should be high on your baseball bucket list.

I covered the Little League World Series in 2010 when Pearland made its first appearance and made it all the way to the U.S. championship game. It may have been my most fun assignment ever.

The Little League World Series is played by 11 and 12-year-olds in Little League’s major division. When ESPN and ABC air these games, they’ll present the players as innocent little kids, like Beaver and Wally or Tom and Huck. They’ll show the kids playing Simon Says with the Little League mascot called Dugout. They’ll ask the kids who’s their favorite big leaguer.

I was a Little League coach. I followed Little League All-Stars across Texas all the way to South Williamsport. These kids are absolute baseball maniacs with $400 gloves, $500 bats and Oakley sunglasses. I thought the Astros might call and ask where they got their super neat equipment.

Especially in Texas, these kids are built tough with long ball power and play year-round travel baseball with high-priced private coaches. This isn’t a choose-up game in the park where kids play in their school clothes, one kid brings a baseball and the players share bats. I looked at some of the Little Leaguers and wondered if they drove to the stadium.

I half-expected, when ABC asked who their baseball idol was, they’d answer “me!”

Here’s how seriously good these kids can play the game. Justin Verlander throws a 97-mph fastball. That’s pretty fast. It’s not rare anymore for a Little League pitcher to reach 70-mph on a fastball. The Little League mound is 46 feet from home plate. A 70-mph pitch in Little League gets to home plate in the same time as a 91-mph pitch from 60 feet 6 inches in MLB.

In 2015, a pitcher named Alex Edmonson fired an 83-mph heater at the Little League World Series. The reaction time a Little League batter had against Alex’s pitch was equal to a Major Leaguer trying to hit a 108-mph fastball. Good luck with that. Alex pitched a no-hitter and struck out 15 batters in six innings at the Little League World Series. Now 20, Alex is a relief pitcher for Clemson.

The Little League World Series is a trip. The easiest way to get there is to fly into Philadelphia and drive to South Williamsport. I sat next to CC Sebathia’s mother on the plane.

Admission to all Little League World Series games is free and snack bar prices are reasonable. A hot dog is $3. Alcohol and smoking are prohibited.

The first Little League World Series was held in 1947. Only 58 players have played in the Little League World Series and later played in MLB. The most famous are Cody Bellinger and Jason Varitek. Only two players from the Houston area made the leap: Brady Rodgers and Randal Grichuk both played on the 2003 team from Richmond, about 30 miles from Houston in Fort Bend County.

While you’re in South Williamsport, you should visit the Little League museum and Hall of Excellence. Among the inductees: Presidents Joe Biden and George W. Bush, Astros manager Dusty Baker, Kevin Costner, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dick Vitale, Rob Manfred and someone who’d later play stadiums in a different way, Bruce Springsteen.

Speaking of Springsteen, I shattered a record at the 2010 Little League World Series. The record was Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I was talking to a Little League executive while teams were warming up on the field. Born in the U.S.A. came over the stadium loudspeakers.

I told the executive, I’m a big fan but maybe this isn’t the best song you should be playing. The executive asked why not? Well, you might want to listen to the words. Born in the U.S.A. is a depressing song about a U.S. soldier who is sent to Vietnam and can’t find a job when he gets back home. It’s not exactly Yankee Doodle Dandy. You have teams from Asia here (Japan won the tournament that year). The executive said, please tell me you’re kidding. Here’s one verse:

Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the (what is considered a slur for Asians).

Later I got an email from the president of Little League International.

“Quite honestly, I've never listened closely to the words of Born in the USA. I see clearly how it is offensive to our Little League friends from Asian nations. I have directed our folks who coordinate the stadium music to discontinue playing it in the future.”

Play Centerfield by John Fogerty instead. The message of that song is, “put me in coach.” Little League couldn’t say it any better.

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