THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Cup Series at Nashville: Alley 400 picks, preview

Keep an eye on Ross Chastain this week at Nashville. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

After a one-week respite, the NASCAR Cup Series returns this weekend for the Second annual Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway. Much like its counterpart, World Wide Technologies Raceway, this racetrack was on the brink of permanent closure in 2012 when owners Dover Motorsports announced it was not going to feature a NASCAR-sanctioned event. While the track remained active for testing and a movie filming location, the prospect of a race returning to the track looked bleak. It wasn’t until 2020 when it was announced that the track would be hosting its first cup race, replacing one of Dover’s dates the next year in 2021. Attendance-wise, the race was a massive success as the race sold out rather quickly. It’s safe to say that this little 1.33-mile racetrack will be a mainstay on the schedule long into the future.

This track is one of the three concrete tracks on the schedule and as everyone knows, this type of surface is excruciating on tires. Like we see every week, this will be another race where drivers will have to be smart in keeping the rubber in good shape. The first pit stop last season was around lap 45, but with these tires being less reliable, expect everyone to peel off into pit road sooner.

Two weeks ago at Sonoma, Daniel Suarez finally captured his first career victory in the NASCAR Cup Series. It was a feat 195 races in the making for the 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion. The path to victory lane had many twists and turns for the Mexican-born driver, starting in 2017 he was given the call to replace the retiring Carl Edwards at Joe Gibbs Racing and two seasons later was eventually replaced by Martin Truex Jr. After his untimely exodus from Gibbs, Suarez was given another opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. During that time, he showed flashes and was consistently around the top ten, but ultimately it was Déjà vu all over again as he was replaced by Cole Custer in 2019 after only one season with the team. Finding a quality ride for Suarez did not come easy as he struggled mightily in 2020, but redemption would come as he would excel driving for newly formed Trackhouse Racing the next year. Suarez and his teammate Ross Chastain have both been in the trenches when it comes to their NASCAR careers, they have driven old cars and have had to slug their way to where they are today. And now it looks like the grind is finally paying off. This will be a fun team to follow going forward into the summer months.

One driver who was on the opposite end was Kyle Larson. When the race started, it seemed like this was going to be another dominant performance by him and his Hendrick racing team, but after a bad pit stop, Larson was mired back in traffic. Things got 100 times worse when he would lose a wheel later on in the race. Because of this, Crew-Chief Cliff Daniels will be suspended for the next four races. This is a big loss for the defending champion, but on the bright side, his interim Crew-Chief Kevin Meendering is a viable backup. I don’t foresee this being too much of an issue, and look for Larson to be one of the favorites to win come Sunday.

The driver I have winning this weekend is Ross Chastain. Last season, Ross was incredibly fast here. Towards the end, it seemed like he was the only car that could run with Kyle Larson as he finished second. After each stage, Ross would continue to climb as he started the race in 19th, but he just didn’t have the car that Larson did. Now, with a little bit better of a team behind him, he is the odds-on favorite to win. Trackhouse racing is on a roll right now coming off a victory with Daniel Suarez and I expect them to keep that momentum going 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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