THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Cup Series at Road America: Kwik Trip 250 picks, preview

Christopher Bell is starting to hit his stride. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The Cup Series makes its second trip to the Badger State this weekend for the Kwik Trip 250 at Road America. This track is one of the most unique road courses in all the world. Opened in 1955, Road America is the largest racetrack on the NASCAR schedule. It has 14 corners and multiple long straightaways. Considering how massive of a track it is, we will see fuel strategy play a big part in the race. The race should be a three-four stop race, so we will more than likely see drivers try to short-pit to cut the race strategy in half, similar to what we saw Matt DiBenedetto do last season.

Last Week at Nashville, Chase Elliott was able to get a good enough restart and hold off Kurt Busch to claim his 15th career win and his second of 2022. On the last restart, there was a bit of controversy after Brad Keselowski crashed with 3 laps to go. Regardless, NASCAR did not throw the caution and the race continued on, allowing Elliott to drive off into the sunset. At first glance, not throwing the yellow flag seemed like it wasn’t the right decision.

Brad was clearly off the pace and possibly laying down debris, that alone seemed like it was worthy of a caution but after a second look, I understand why NASCAR made the decision they did. There had been a long rain delay, and they were ready to get back home. Regardless, the race was won and lost by the decision to pit or not to pit on the final restart. The dominant car of the day was Kyle Busch, his chances of victory were dashed after the team decided to go down pit road and give up their track position. I am sure that decision by crew chief Ben Beshore is one he’d like to have back.

Another team that struggled in pit road was the #23 of Bubba Wallace. All season, this pit crew has continued to let down their driver, and it’s a shame because they have had some really fast cars. No one else in the field passed as many cars as he did, and it was all because he would either have to deal with a loose wheel or a bad pit stop. While he was able to rebound to an acceptable 12th place finish, the results haven’t been indicative of where they should finish. At Kansas, Bubba had the fastest car on the track for the better part of the day but again because of a loose wheel, he would have to come from the back.

Now I can understand that this team is a new team and didn’t have the luxury of buying a whole race team like Trackhouse did, but this is becoming more and more of a habit, and it’s costing them dearly. This week will be even more challenging considering that the cars will enter their pit-stall in the opposite direction. Let's hope for their sake that they get these things figured out, they are running out of time to try and make the playoffs and join their teammate Kurt Busch in the round of 16.

Ryan Blaney was able to complete an incredible comeback last week. Earlier in the race, Blaney would slap the wall in turn four and spin. He would rebound to finish third and appeared to have a car to contend for the win on the last restart. Blaney has really flown under the radar this season. While he hasn’t won a points paying event this season, no one has been more consistent than him. Blaney is having a season similar to Denny Hamlin's from last year, as he scores a lot of stage points and finishes upfront almost weekly. He didn’t have a good race here last year, but these cars are much different, so it will be a completely different racetrack.

My pick to win this weekend is Christopher Bell. To some, this might be a bit of a surprise pick, but he has been running really well. Over the last six races, no one has a higher average finish than he does. It seems like he is starting to hit his stride, and now they are going to a race he nearly won last season. A win would almost be required for Bell to make the chase, right now he is safe. But with the abundance of winners we have seen this season, it will benefit him the most to get a victory and assure his ticket to the playoffs. If he can continue this run of consistency, look out for Bell to take the checkered flag on Sunday.

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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.

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