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NASCAR Cup Series at Nashville: Alley 400 picks, preview

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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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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