The Left Turn

NASCAR is back for the 2020 Daytona 500

Jimmie Johnson
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images


After three months of waiting, the time has finally come for the great american race, the Daytona 500. This will be the 61st running of NASCAR's crown jewel and while there were many changes to the landscape of the sport in the off-season, the slate is now cleaned for each driver.

This will be the final Daytona 500 for the current car they are running as next season they will switch to the "next gen" model which will be VASTLY different than the car we will be seeing on Sunday. This is important because now teams will be able to maximize the current cars they have now before they become obsolete in 2021. Many team owners have done a good job of taking advantage of this including team JTG Daugherty Racing as they were able to reach a deal with Hendrick Motorsports allowing them more resources that they didn't have last year. These include pit crew support and engines as well. The team has really reaped the benefits of this as their new driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr went on to claim the pole on Sunday.

We will see if this will improve parity and if we will see any new winners in 2020.

Another major storyline coming into this new season is the rookie class. Over the last couple of years, NASCAR's rookie class has not been as strong as fans would like it to be, but this year is a completely different story. Drivers Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick have all been promoted to the cup series in 2020. This has been long overdue as they have all shown excellent promise by outrunning multiple Cup racing stars who frequently race in the Xfinity series. While Reddick is the only one of the three to win a championship, they have all won a combined 34 races over the last three years.

Tyler Reddick will move to the #8 Caterpillar Chevy for Richard Childress racing 2020 replacing Daniel Hemric. Many fans believe that adding the young driver will revitalize the slumping team as he finished ninth last year in his second Cup Series start at Kansas. Reddick is easily the most accomplished as he has won back to back NASCAR Xfinity Championships. Overall, if he can translate his success to the Cup series he will for sure be one to watch this year.

California native Cole Custer will be driving the #41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas racing as he will be replacing Daniel Suarez. This comes as no surprise considering his connections to the race team as his Dad, Joe Custer is the team president. While many people have been quick to bring this up, it doesn't take away from the immense talent this young man has. Last season, Cole won seven races and was very close to claiming the championship after a fierce battle with Reddick at Homestead. Overall, I also believe that Cole will be going into one of the better situations as he will be driving in championship winning equipment as well. I look for Custer to really make a splash this year.

While both of these drivers are extremely talented, I believe that Christopher Bell is the best of the three and will win rookie of the year. The Norman, Oklahoma phenom will be driving the #95 Toyota Camry for Bob Leavine and the Leavine Family Racing team. Unlike the other two, Bell has yet to make a Cup Series start but don't let that fool you, no one could be more prepared for the big time than this young man. Overall, I believe that he is the most polished prospect that the sport has seen since Tony Stewart considering both their backgrounds in Dirt Racing. This could explain why Joe Gibbs and his team has been so instrumental in moving Christopher's career forward considering Stewart also drove for him from 1999 to the end of 2008 when he would form his own team the next season. I think Coach Gibbs sees a lot in this young man and that's why he is spending a lot of money and resources on a partnership with Leavine Family Racing. Look for Bell to be contending for wins and championships for decades to come.

While one of those three drivers are easily the favorites to take Rookie Of The Year, another driver who is finally getting his shot at the highest level is John-Hunter Nemechek. Son of NASCAR vetran Joe Nemechek, racing has been in this young man's blood since even before he was even born, you had to figure that this young man was destined to be where he is today. While he isn't driving for a big money team in front row racing, he has been rather impressive. Last year at Texas he was in the top twenty to top fifteen throughout the day. If the young man can keep this up his name could come up for a promotion to another team. Look for Nemechek to surprise some folks this year.

Aside from this year's stacked rookie class, there will also be plenty of new faces in new places. One of the biggest announcements this year was Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Chris Buescher switching rides at Roush Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. This came as a big surprise last season as Stenhouse had re-signed with Roush to remain in the #17 Fastenal Ford but after he struggled for most of the season, the hall of fame car owner decided to go in a different direction so they brought in their former developmental driver Chris Buescher. To counter this move, car owners Tad and Jodi Geschickter decided to bring in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Another big move this year was Matt DiBenedetto moving to the Wood brothers to replace the retiring Paul Menard in the legendary #21 Ford Mustang. This was a popular move among NASCAR fans as he will continue to try and move his budding career forward. It will be interesting to see how these drivers will do at their new teams.

While there were many changes easily the biggest storyline this year is Jimmie Johnson and his announcement that 2020 will be his final season in NASCAR before retiring. Over the course of his 18-year career, it's hard to find anyone with a better resume. He has 83 wins and most importantly seven championships. He has experienced his fair share of success here at Daytona as well as he has won the 500 twice back in 2006 and 2013. While during his prime, Jimmie wasn't always the most popular one thing remains, Jimmie was the best to ever do it. In his final Daytona 500, Jimmie is who I am picking to win. Over the course of speedweeks Jimmie has been pretty quick as he posted speeds in the top four in both rounds one and two. Of all the drivers in the field, Johnson easily is the most experienced and that should definitely help him in the long run. Look for Jimmie Johnson to go out on top in his final daytona 500.

One darkhorse driver to watch out for is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. As I mentioned earlier, Ricky is having a week to remember as he went on to claim his third career pole on Sunday and was a lap away from winning one of winning one of the Duel qualifying races as well. I look for him to have a good race and if he can keep up his momentum a good season as well. It will be fun to watch as he tries to capture his first Daytona 500 victory from the front row on sunday.

(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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