NASCAR: Xfinity 500 preview, picks

Keep an eye on Joey Logano this week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

It's here, the semi-final race before the championship, the Xfinity 500 at Martinsville. The stakes have never been higher as four drivers will race for a championship at the conclusion. With this track being so narrow, there is a 100 percent chance that we will see a lot of bent fenders at the end of the race. There will be plenty of drama when the smoke clears. The playoff field of eight is as tight as ever, as Ryan Blaney is a single point behind Kyle Busch for the final spot at Phoenix. The rest of the field isn't too far behind either as Martin Truex Jr is three points back and Brad Keselowski is six points out. It is shaping up to be one of the most dramatic races of the season. You won't want to miss it.

The playoff woes continued for some last week at Kansas. Drivers like Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, and Martin Truex Jr all had tire troubles that gave them bad results. This is a big reason as to why the points are as close as they are going into this race. This has been the general theme all throughout each round. The only driver who hasn't seemed to have any issues has been Kyle Larson as he went on to his ninth victory of the season.

This has been a special season for Kyle Larson. A lot was made about if he should be able to return after all the self-imposed turmoil of 2020, but he has really made the most of his second chance. This victory last week was his third win in a row and the second time he's reached a streak of three consecutive victories. The only other driver to do it, Dale Earnhardt, in 1987 when he won his third NASCAR championship. This season will go down in history as one of the most dominant seasons the sport has ever seen, and I have to give Kyle a lot of credit. Not just because of his performance on the track, but because of how much he has done to try and make things right after his mistake last season. He has proved that it's never about how you fall, but how you make it better and get back up. I commend him on his efforts.

One driver to look out for this week is the driver with the most to gain and the least to lose, and that's Joey Logano. He currently sits in eighth position 26 points below the cutline. While it isn't technically a must-win situation for Logano, it's pretty close. With his aggressive driving style, more than likely if he is in a position to take someone out for the win this week, he will. We watched him do it back in 2018 after knocking Martin Truex Jr out of the lead in the final corner. In a sense, I can't really blame Logano for the way he drives. He doesn't take any prisoners out there, and I expect it to be much of the same this week. He rolls off fifth come Sunday.

A good none-playoff driver to watch out for this week is Kurt Busch. He's been really good at this track, he's won here twice back in 2002 and 2014. While he's had a lot of duds here over the years, he has found a knack for this racetrack. His time at Ganassi Racing is coming to an end, and what better way for him to cap off his tenure here than a good finish. He will start tenth on Sunday.

The driver that I am picking to win this week is Kyle Busch. In the round of eight, Kyle has been pretty consistent and has stayed in the top ten, but last week at Kansas it all came crumbling down like it usually does. He struggled to find any speed after a flat tire pretty much crippled his day. He was so upset that he was screaming inaudible profanities at the top of his lungs on the radio. As I mentioned earlier, Kyle is a single point ahead of Ryan Blaney for the fourth spot and really benefitted from everyone else's misfortunes, but this week, he should be the car to beat. He's been good at this racetrack with three top fives but has yet to score that first win. This Sunday, that should change. He starts seventh.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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