THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Pocono 400 preview

NASCAR Pocono 400 preview
Kyle Busch picked up another win. Kylebusch.com

This Sunday, we head for the tricky triangle at Pocono Motor Speedway for the annual Pocono 400. Pocono is a 2.5 mile triangle, the only race track on the schedule that has three turns as opposed to four. Last week, Kyle Busch dominated the Coca-Cola 600 as he led 377  laps en route to his fourth victory of 2018.

Throughout the weekend, Busch and his team never really had any competition as he not only won the race but the pole position as well. Aside from Busch, the other big story was the radio and the issues that the drivers faced. Somehow, a fan or a group of fans  were able to tap into the radio communications of the drivers and their crew chiefs. This proved to be an issue with drivers like Busch, Alex Bowman, David Regan and Jamie McMurray. Busch who was leading at the time, was shocked to hear a muffled voice “how his tires were.” this caused Busch to be without communication with his team for five laps.

The snafu brought on debate of whether or not NASCAR should better encrypt the radios to where fans can not hear the teams' communications with the drivers. I personally believe taking away these capabilities amongst fans would make the sport less unique but if it comes down to where it is a distraction maybe upgrading their means of communications would not be a bad idea.

One of the biggest surprises of last week's race was  Jamie McMurray after he was able to come out of Charlotte with his second top 10 of the season. The veteran was near the front for most of the race and even ran as high as second at one point. Even though McMurray did not have a car capable of winning, this run was still a big confidence booster for a driver that has struggled immensely this season. McMurray and his Earnhardt-Ganassi teammate Kyle Larson both were able to finish sixth and seventh respectfully. The Driver that I had winning last week was Denny Hamlin. Going into the weekend, Hamlin and his team had an impressive qualifying effort as Hamlin rolled off third; he would go on to finish exactly where he started in third.

Kevin Harvick came into the week as one of the heavy favorites to take his third Coca-Cola 600. Prior to the weekend, he won the last three races at Dover, Kansas and the All-Star race. Going into the race, Harvick was not able to make a qualifying attempt and was forced to start last. When the race began, Harvick appeared to be on the move but on lap 85, he cut down a tire and slammed the wall in turn four ending his day.  Look for Harvick to be a threat to bounce back at Pocono this sunday.

The favorite going into this weekend is Brad Keselowski. Over the past four races here at Pocono, Keselowski has an average finish of 3.75 and has not finished lower than fifth. He also has a victory here in 2011 when he beat Busch for his third career victory. Not only was this win important for that season for Brad, it was also a major step forward for his career as he went on to win two more races that season at Bristol and Dover and then win the championship the following year. Look for Brad and his team to try and duplicate what he did then and get his first win of 2018 and solidify his spot in the chase.

The driver that I predict will take the checkered flag is Kurt Busch. The 2004 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series Champion has flown under the radar this year. He has seven top-10s and two top fives and is currently sixth in the points standings. While he has been consistently in the top 10 for nearly half of the season, he still has yet to claim his first win of 2018.

This should change come Sunday. Kurt is going to a race track where he has ran well at over the years, as in his 33 starts, Busch has won here three times. In all active drivers, only Denny Hamlin has more wins here. Look for Kurt Busch to become the third Stewart-Haas racing car to go to victory lane in 2018.

A dark horse driver to keep an eye on this week is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. as 2018 has been pretty solid for the sixth-year driver as he has four top 10s and two top fives so far. He currently sits in 15th in the points and is in contention to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year. By no means has Pocono been a good race track for Stenhouse Jr. In fact, he has never finished higher than 11th here but I think this weekend will be different. Last week he claimed his third top 10 of the season in the Coca-Cola 600, so look for Stenhouse to build on last week as he continues to try and get Roush Racing back on track.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Refrence.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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