NASCAR: Phoenix championship preview plus picks

It's go time! Photo by Wiki Commons.

The time has come, the NASCAR Cup Series heads for Phoenix for the last race of this insane 2020 season. Right from the start this year has been one unlike any other from the Ryan Newman crash in Daytona to the massive global pandemic that paused racing for nearly three months. This has not been a continental season in the slightest. But now it all resets, it all hinges upon four drivers who will race for a championship on Sunday.

For the first time in the sports history, the season finale will be held at Phoenix Raceway. This track is a one mile "superspeedway" with an asphalt surface. It also features a huge dip in the front-stretch called the dogleg. Because of this, we see a bunch of cars drop all the way off the racing surface to try and make a pass. The finish line was also moved all the way to the entry of turn one similar to what we see at Talladega, so this is where most of the action will be on the track.

The winner last week was Chase Elliott, he was able to fend off a last second charge from all three Penske cars in the closing laps. This victory officially punched his ticket to this week's championship race for the first time in the young driver's career. This had been a long time coming for the fan favorite as he has been in contention every year. He now goes to a track where he has been good in the past but recently he has really struggled including a last place finish here last November. This is certainly not a track that the 9 team has circled on their calendar but if they can find the speed they have shown there before, they can really contend for the championship.

The one thing he will have on his side is where he will be starting as he will be near the front row with NASCAR's new starting line-up procedures. If I know one thing though, if the prodigal son from Dawsonville can pull off the victory, there will be tons of celebration all around the racing world. If they are going to win though one thing crew-chief Alan Gufaston and his team may want to try and avoid this week is mistakes on pit-road. Last week his Jackman went over the wall too soon and Elliott was penalized for it. Lucky for them, he was spared as NASCAR rescinded the penalty because the crew member went back to the wall and touched it with his foot as Elliott entered pit-road. This doesn't make much sense to me personally but regardless they got a break, and he went on to win the race. They need to be careful because next time they might not be so lucky. Look for the #9 Camaro to be the fan favorite to win the title.

Joey Logano got his win out of the way early and clinched his spot at Kansas. He currently enters this week as the favorite to win the title considering he won at this track back in March before the whole world shutdown and while he does have that on his side, his stats here over the last four races don't look great for the 2018 champion. Since 2018, Logano has finished 1st, 9th, 10th and 37th here and any other time that wouldn't look too bad but considering you almost have to win this race to win the title, more than likely a top ten won't get the job done. Regardless, he has a great team behind him and will be the toughest driver to contend with this week. Look for Logano to be out front.

Joey's teammate Brad Keselowski will also be racing for a championship this week after getting in by the skin of his teeth. He was able to overcome a pit-road speeding penalty and rebound for a fourth place finish. He made it in by the narrowest of margins as he was one point ahead of Kevin Harvick for the fourth and final spot until Harvick spun himself and Kyle Busch taking Harvick out of contention. While a lot of people didn't really expect the 2012 champion to be in this position this week, Brad has done more than enough to prove that he has earned his chance. This year he has four wins and twenty-three top tens, so he has been quietly in the mix for a win every week. This track at Phoenix has not been good to him though as his last four finishes have been 11th,10th,19th and 2nd. He will have to improve big time if he wants a chance at his second championship.

The last driver to make it into the championship four was Denny Hamlin. Like Keselowski, he too was only one point to the good ahead of Kevin Harvick but thanks to his teammate, he was able to clinch a spot in the championship four. In the closing laps of the race, Hamlin was under immense pressure from his (soon to be gone) teammate Erik Jones. It looked like he was going to make the pass on him and force a tie between him and Kevin Harvick but someone came over the radio and said "Don't pass him Jones, stay with him if you can" thus practically sealing the deal for Hamlin. Many people were upset about this move but NASCAR saw no issue and didn't issue any penalties to the 11 team. While he got there with much controversy, all that matters is he got there and with the season he's had, it's hard to argue that he doesn't belong. Overall, he has won seven races and finished in the top five twenty times. Aside from Kevin Harvick no one has had a better season than him. Phoenix is a fairly good track for him, but he did finish twentieth in the spring. Look for the #11 FedEx Toyota Camry to be a contender as well.

Of the four drivers I have mentioned the driver that I have winning the championship this week is Denny Hamlin. Ever since his rookie year in 2006, the Virginia driver has been incredibly fast. Many considered him a driver that would win a lot of championships in the future and while he has won almost everything else, a championship has always evaded him. At this point, many are already considering him the best driver to never win a title, but this week I think it will be a different story. At the start of the playoffs, if someone would have told me who the championship four would have been, first I would have cringed and then secondly I would say that Denny would have the best path to victory. Not to say that Elliott, Logano or Brad don't belong but considering the incredible season that Kevin Harvick had, I would have imagined he would be there as well, but he isn't. Those two have been the best out there, and we all would have figured it would come down to them but in sports, the two best teams don't always make it to the end.

Now this doesn't mean it will be easy for the three time Daytona 500 winner as both Penske cars and Chase Elliott have momentum on their side, but I just think the stars are aligning for the 11 team. Denny and his crew-chief Chirs Gabehart have done a fantastic job this season and now they get to go to a track where Hamlin has won at twice in the past. If they can put the perfect race together, they will have to pry the championship from his hands. Look for Hamlin to take the crown this season.

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Yordan Alvarez's homer in Wednesday's game gave him 100 RBI on the season. Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Winners of three straight, six of their last seven, and eight of their last ten, the Astros had the chance to move yet another game closer to clinching their playoff spot if they could secure the series with a win against the Angels on Wednesday. Even though it looked as though they were headed towards a loss in extra innings, they would ultimately come out ahead.

Final Score (12 innings): Astros 9, Angels 5

Astros' Record: 91-61, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Yimi Garcia (4-9)

Losing Pitcher: Sam Selman (0-1)

Garcia goes six shutout innings

Although he didn't have swing-and-miss dominance in this start, Luis Garcia could still capitalize on a struggling Angels offense and post a shutout quality start against them. He allowed three walks and three hits throughout his outing but stranded all of them while getting outs on balls in play. His final line: 6.0 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 79 P.

Alvarez reaches 100 RBI as Houston's offense keeps rolling

That performance had Garcia in line for the win, as two homers handed him a 3-0 advantage which he held. Houston once again used early offense to take a first-inning lead, as a leadoff walk by Jose Altuve turned into a monster 456-foot by Yordan Alvarez, pushing him to 100 RBI on the season. The score held at 2-0 until the top of the fifth, when Jason Castro led that frame off with a solo homer to extend the lead to three runs.

Extras in Anaheim

Phil Maton was first out of Houston's bullpen in the bottom of the seventh, but a single, double, and walk loaded the bases with no outs to put him in a jam. A lineout kept the runners put for the first out, but a single and a walk would make it a one-run game and left the bases loaded as Maton would get pulled.

Kendall Graveman entered to try and stop the bleeding, but after a force out at home to put that within reach, Jack Mayfield came through for Los Angeles with a go-ahead three-run double, giving the Angels their first lead of the series at 5-3. In the top of the eighth, a walk by Alex Bregman brought Alvarez back to the plate, and he would nearly miss a game-tying homer and instead got an RBI-single to make it 5-4.

Alvarez would still come in to tie the game, hustling home from second on an RBI single by Yuli Gurriel to knot things up 5-5. Brooks Raley was Houston's next reliever, and he sat down LA in order with two strikeouts. Still tied in the bottom of the ninth, Ryan Pressly came in to force extras, and despite being shadowed by the winning run on the bases after a leadoff single, retired the next three batters to send the game to the tenth.

Astros keep battling and take it in the twelfth

Jake Meyers took second base as Houston's free runner in the top of the tenth, but he would go nowhere as the Astros went down in order, giving the Angels another chance at a walk-off. Instead of giving Shohei Ohtani a free pass immediately, Houston would let Blake Taylor throw two balls to him before giving him the intentional walk.

Taylor then gave up a single to load the bases with no outs, and after getting a force out at home for the first out, Yimi Garcia would replace him. Thanks to a great play by Chas McCormick, giving him multiple in the game, the Astros would live to see another inning as he would make a great catch in right field and then throw out Ohtani at home.

In the top of the eleventh, a sac fly by Yuli Gurriel moved Aledmys Diaz to third, but that's as close as Houston would come, leaving them stuck at five runs. After Garcia retired three more batters in the bottom of the eleventh, the game moved to the twelfth, where Houston would get back in front on an RBI single by Jake Meyers, then padded the new lead on a two-RBI double by Jose Altuve, who would also score on a sac fly by Alex Bregman, making it 9-5. Josh James came in and wrapped things up in the bottom half as Houston secured the series victory and reduced their magic number to two against Oakland and three against Seattle.

Up Next: The finale of this four-game series, and the last time these two teams will meet this year, will be an 8:38 PM Central start on Thursday. The expected pitching matchup is Alex Cobb (8-3, 3.59 ERA) for Los Angeles and Lance McCullers Jr. (12-4, 3.11 ERA) for Houston.

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