THE FINAL RACE

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Homestead is the site of Sunday's NASCAR finale. NASCAR.COM

The time has finally come, the race that we have all waited for. After thirty - five races, we have reached the final race of the year at Homestead. Homestead is another 1.5-mile race track. The track was once flat and passing was rare and only really took place in the straightaways. But in 2003, the track was reconfigured and more banking was added. This called for more side - by - side racing and better finishes. Four drivers have a chance at winning the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championship. Those four drivers are Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski. The driver who first punched his ticket to Homestead was Kyle Busch by virtue of his victory at Martinsville. Busch struggled to begin his season; at Daytona he was involved in a multi - car incident that ended his day. He then backed it up the next week at Atlanta with a mediocre sixteenth place finish.

All throughout the spring and most of the summer Busch was up and down, but once they got to end of July, he woke up and his crew became the team we all know. He won the Overton's 400 at Pocono after bumping Kevin Harvick out of the way with seventeen laps to go. This victory set the tone for him going into the rest of the regular season. He went on to win three more races and further establish himself as a favorite to win the title. Kyle and his team has definitely put together a championship caliber season and he is heading to one of his best tracks. Since 2015 his average finish has been 3.50. He has also won here once in 2015 to seal his first championship. Busch is certainly good at this race track and should be one to watch for.

By taking the green flag last week at Phoenix, Martin Truex Jr. Was officially locked into homestead. He is the odds - on favorite to win his first championship. This season has been dominating from the start for Truex. He began his hot streak at Las Vegas when he swept all three stages of the race and went on to win his first race of the year. He then went on to win six more races this year and ended his season with more victories than anyone with seven. He has excelled at mile and a half tracks winning six of his seven victories on those types of race tracks. With Homestead being a 1.5-mile track it is no wonder why Truex would be the favorite. I'd like to think he is the sentimental favorite as well.

With all of the things that have happened to him from losing his ride at Michael Waltr ip Racing in 2014, to his wife being diagnosed with cancer, it has been a rocky road to the top for the 11-year veteran but it sure would be a great story to see him finally win that championship that has eluded him since his full time first season in 2006. While it has been a masterful year for him, Truex has struggled to run well at Homestead. His average finish here since 2015 is 24th. Homestead is not one of his best race tracks but I think this year will be different. Besides Truex has run well here and his finishes have not been indicative of how he has competed. Last year he stayed primarily around the top 10 until he was involved in a massive crash with ten laps to go. If Truex and his Furniture Row racing team can put together a whole race, I believe he can be a fierce competitor for the championship. It has been a quiet season for Kevin Harvick this year, the man they call the "closer" has flown under the radar but statistically he has been right up there with the contenders. He has had an incredible 22 top ten finishes. And what is even more incredible is his thirteen top five finishes. While he has only won two races this year at Sonoma and Texas, Harvick has been the model of consistency and has been up front all year and now he heads to his best track since 2015. He has the highest average finish of all active drivers of 6.94 and since 2015 has not finished worse than second at this track so it would definitely be hard to bet against him come Sunday.

The fourth and final driver to clinch a spot at homestead is Brad Keselowski. It has truly been an amazing journey for him to get to where he is today. He was born into a racing family with his dad Bob and his brother Brian both being race car drivers. In 2004 Brad was struggling to find an opportunity to land a top ride in NASCAR and he was driving for his dad and their team K - Automotive in the truck series and struggling to finish races. Brad did not get his big break until three years later in 2007 when truck series regular Ted Musgrave was suspended for an incident at the Milwaukee Mile. Team Owner Bob Germain needed a fill-in driver to substitute for Musgrave at Memphis and Brad was called upon. He made the most of his opportunity and ran with it as he went on to start on pole position and lead the most laps.

While Keselowski did not win the race that day after crashing out, he caught the eye of Dale Earnhardt Jr. With an open seat in his NASCAR Xfinity series team, Keselowski was then called upon again. With impressive results and a surprise victory at Talladega in the cup series in 2009, Keselowski was then hired to drive at Penske in 2010 and two years later he won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship. Brad has the longest odds to win the championship at 10-1 and is not going to his best race track. His average finish there since 2015 is 19th but he has overcome adversity all his career if there is anyone that can pull it off it is him.

My predictions: I believe this year will be the first time the winner of the race does not win the championship and the highest finishing of the four will get it. My race winner will be Kyle Larson. Every year Larson has been leading here and always appears to have the race locked up but in the closing laps a caution always comes out and costs him a shot at victory. This year I don't think that caution comes out and I think he cruises home to a victory. The Championship battle will come down to Busch and Harvick. As good a season as Truex has had I just don’t foresee him doing so well at this track due to his struggles as of late. When the checkered flag falls I have Harvick winning his second championship. This will come right down to the final laps with him and Busch and it may end with Busch getting moved out of the way. These two have a history that dates all the way back to 2005 and race car drivers have LONG memories. We should be in for a classic come Sunday evening when it is all said and d one.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driver averages.com and Racing - Refrence.com the best website for all NASCAR stats)

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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