THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Cup Series at Pocono: M&M's Fan Appreciation 400 preview, picks

Kyle Larson looks like a solid bet this week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for the Pocono Mountains this week for the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. This track is the only one on the schedule that is shaped as a triangle, its long straightaways usually bring long green flag runs, so we will see a lot of strategies come into play similar to what we saw last season. It will be interesting to see what kind of tire wear we see with these brand-new cars at this 2-mile racetrack.

Last week, Christopher Bell claimed his second career victory and his first of 2022 at New Hampshire. In the closing laps, Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch were racing hard for the lead, and Bell was able to sneak past both of them and never look back. This had been a long time coming for the third-year driver, he had been rattling off a lot of quality runs up near the top 5. It seems like this team just gets better around the end of the summer, we saw it with Erik Jones and Tony Stewart. This team will be a threat in the playoffs if they continue to run this well.

After his win in New Hampshire, Christopher bell became the 14th different winner of the season, and now only two spots remain in the playoffs with five races remaining in the regular season. The drivers currently on the cut-line are Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. They are currently third and fifth in points. If there haven’t already been enough questions about the legitimacy of these playoffs and this format, I can’t imagine the debate that will take place if two drivers who are in the top five in points miss out on the playoffs. Would it be fair? Absolutely not, but at the end of the day, these drivers needed a win and, they have yet to get one. 2014 champion Kevin Harvick is the first car out of the playoffs and at this point, getting in on points is pretty much out of the question. His only option is to win a race. If he can’t, it’s over and there is a legitimate chance that Kevin Harvick will retire at season's end. It is sure to be a dramatic next month of August to decide the field on who will run for the championship at year's end. I don’t envy these drivers or crews that are fighting to get in.

It was announced on Tuesday that NASCAR will make its street racing debut in 2023 in Chicago. The track will be a 12-turn, two-mile track through the streets of downtown. This race will take place as we all expected it to on the July 4th weekend. There will be a lot of intrigue with this race as each corner will be 90 degrees, so we will more than likely see a lot of bumping and banging. This is truly a landmark moment for the sport and I look forward to seeing how this works out.

With the excitement of one move comes the heartbreak of a track losing its date. It was announced that this race will take the place of Road America. I was a little bit surprised at the move considering how many people showed up to watch the race. There were plenty of other options for NASCAR to make this work logistically. One idea was it could have been used for the All-Star race. Regardless, this is a huge blow for a lot of fans that live in the Elkhart Lake region of Wisconsin and my heart truly breaks for them as they don’t have many other races they can go to as the Milwaukee Mile remains in limbo. Let's hope that Road America finds success with another series like IMSA or IndyCar, and the great fans that they have keep showing up.

Drama building?

The Kyle Busch contract drama continues, but now things are looking a bit bleaker. "We’re in a bad place right now,” said David Wilson, Toyota Racing CEO about his contract situation. It appeared that they were making significant strides in their search for a sponsor and were close to coming to an agreement, but the deal fell through. The fact that Kyle Busch may not return to Joe Gibbs Racing next year is something a lot of NASCAR fans have had a hard time grasping. He’s easily been the greatest driver that Toyota has ever seen. He even scored the manufacturer's first win back in 2008 at Atlanta. It’s clear that Toyota and Joe Gibbs want him to stay, but they have a young driver in Ty Gibbs who is dominating in the Xfinity Series. The whole situation is similar to Tony Stewart back in 2008. While Gibbs wanted to keep him, Joey Logano was next in line and Tony had ownership plans. This will easily be the biggest storyline going forward into the next few months.

This week, though, the focus shifts to Pocono and the driver I have winning on Sunday is Kyle Larson. Ever since his win at Auto-Club, the defending champion has been up and down, but has yet to win a race this season. If you had told me at this point last year that he would only have one win on the whole year, I would have thought you were crazy, but here we are. By no means has this been a bad season for him, but there have been so many disappointments from losing his crew chief Cliff Daniels at Sonoma because of a loose wheel, to last week at New Hampshire when the handling went away, and he was regulated to a disappointing 14th place finish. This week he is going to a track where he’s shown a lot of speed, in fact, last season he was one corner away from winning here before blowing a tire. A win couldn’t come at a better time for Larson, look for the #5 Camaro to go to victory lane this Sunday.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
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.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome