THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR heads for the high banks of Talladega

Start your engines! Photo by Getty Images.

Well the time has come, Talladega is here. This is possibly the most famous racetrack on NASCAR's schedule as it's high banks and three and four wide racing is must-see TV. This track is sure to bring many surprises as each driver tries to avoid the big one. It will be an all-out frenzy come Sunday that you won't want to miss.

Last week, Alex Bowman charged to the lead to claim his third career victory and first of 2021. In the closing stages, it looked like it was going to be a battle between Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano until a late race incident by Kevin Harvick put everyone back in it. The lead lap cars all elected to pit, and it looked like the race was going to fall into Hamlin's lap as he won the race off pit road gaining the lead from Logano but, on the restart seemingly from out of nowhere, Alex Bowman went to the inside and was able to make them both and never looked back. This win was huge considering it was the first victory for the #48 since 2017 at Dover. This had to have been a huge shot of confidence for this team considering how difficult these last four years have been for them. This comes as a passing of the torch for Bowman considering the insurmountable success of his predecessor. I look for him and this team to be a real contender this year with crew chief Greg Ives on the pit-board.

Our friends over at Rick Ware Racing are once again in the headlines this week. A couple of weeks ago it was announced that Jennifer Jo Cobb would be piloting the #15 Chevy Camaro for Talladega. This was a relatively big deal considering there hasn't been a woman in NASCAR since Danica Patrick made her one off start back in 2018 in the Daytona 500. The reactions were mixed but most were happy to see her finally get a chance in the Cup Series considering how much experience she has in the truck series. Everything appeared to be going as planned until NASCAR stepped in and barred her from the field. Many were left looking for answers, why would NASCAR do this? She seemed to have plenty of experience at Daytona and Talladega. In fact, she led a few laps here last fall in the truck series. When NASCAR officials gave their explanation, they stated that her results in the trucks are the primary reason why she isn't being allowed to race. Overall, I think this is kind of a ridiculous reason to deny her, I get it, the results have been underwhelming, but it's important to note how much smaller a budget her truck team has compared to everyone else. I hope at some point she gets a chance to make her debut in the Cup Series.

One of the feel good stories of 2021 has been the success of the JTG Racing Team with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Ryan Preece. Going into this season, the team appeared to be in a lot of turmoil. Both drivers were facing a lot of uncertainty regarding their future, Ryan Preece doesn't even have a charter to run all the races this year. In the face of all of this adversity this team has done nothing but push forward as Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has kept his car inside the top twenty in every race this year. For a lot of teams this would be underwhelming but for a team that struggled as much as they did last season, this has been a huge improvement. I wouldn't be surprised to see at least one of their cars in the playoffs this year and see both contend for a win this Sunday at Talladega.

The driver that I have winning this week is Denny Hamlin. While this might not be the exciting long-shot pick we are accustomed to hearing, Denny has been one of the best super-speedway racers in modern history. In his sixty-one starts, he has five victories at Daytona and Talladega including a controversial win last year in the fall. One of the big reasons he is so good here has been his ability to keep his car together the whole race and avoid the big one. If he and his JGR and Toyota teammates can all stay together, he should be very hard to beat once the green flag drops. Look for Hamlin to take the checkered flag come Sunday.

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Houston goes up 1-0 in the series

Altuve, Correa help lift Astros to ALCS Game 1 win over Red Sox

Carlos Correa's go-ahead homer in the seventh inning of ALCS Game 1 helped lift the Astros to a 1-0 series lead. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Despite one rough loss to the White Sox in the ALDS, the Astros looked like the dominant team they are capable of being, taking that series 3-1 to advance and taking ownership of home-field advantage in the ALCS against the Red Sox, who upset the Rays. In Game 1, despite trailing for the middle portions of the game, Houston would get more highlight moments from the faces of the franchise to start the series with a win.

Final Score: Astros 5, Red Sox 4

ALCS Series (Best of Seven): Houston leads 1-0

Winning Pitcher: Ryne Stanek

Losing Pitcher: Hansel Robles

Houston strikes first, but Boston sends Valdez to an early exit

Both starting pitchers worked in and out of trouble in the early goings of ALCS Game 1, starting with Framber Valdez in the top of the first. After erasing a leadoff single by inducing a double play, he went on to load the bases on a single and two walks but would strand all three runners to keep Boston off the board. The Astros jumped in front in the bottom half, with Jose Altuve working a leadoff walk, moving to second on a one-out single by Alex Bregman, advancing to third on a wild pitch, then ultimately scoring on a sac fly by Yordan Alvarez to put Houston ahead 1-0 after one frame.

They had a chance to extend their lead in the bottom of the second, taking advantage of a shaky inning by Chris Sale, who loaded the bases with one out as Houston would get two singles and a hit-by-pitch. That flipped the order over to the top, but a great diving catch by former Astro Kiké Hernández would end the inning. Hernández led off the top of the third against Valdez, and he would tie things up with a solo homer.

Things went downhill from there for Valdez and the Astros, as a one-out walk followed by a single gave the Red Sox the go-ahead run in scoring position. On a groundball that likely should have been a double play to end the inning, it would get through Altuve's legs, scoring a run and keeping the inning alive for Boston. They took advantage, getting an RBI double to extend their new lead to 3-1. Valdez would get one more out before Dusty Baker would give him the early hook, bringing in Yimi Garcia, who finished the frame.

A battle of the bullpens, Altuve ties it up

Like Valdez, Sale would also not make it through three innings, getting two outs while putting two on base before Boston would start their bullpen's night as well. Both sets of relievers settled the game down, with the Red Sox stranding two of Houston's runners in the third as well as the fifth, maintaining their two-run lead. After Garcia finished the third, Cristian Javier entered to eat up a couple of innings, and he would do just that by getting through two frames with just one hit, four strikeouts, and no runs.

Next, Phil Maton took over in the top of the sixth and erased a leadoff walk to keep things in striking distance for the home team. In the bottom of the sixth, Houston put another runner on base, getting a one-out single by Chas McCormick. Two batters later, with two outs, Jose Altuve provided yet another career postseason highlight, tying the game 3-3 with a two-run home to re-energize the Minute Maid Park crowd.

Astros take ALCS Game 1

Now a brand new ballgame in the top of the seventh, Brooks Raley came in to face three batters, getting two strikeouts while allowing a single before Dusty Baker would move on to Ryne Stanek, who would get the third out. With two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Carlos Correa continued his march to a monster off-season contract, putting Houston back on top with a solo homer, making it 4-3.

Houston kept the script after Stanek with the new lead in hand, going to Kendall Graveman as the setup man in the top of the eighth. Despite a two-out single, he would get out of the inning with the lead intact, putting Houston three outs away from the victory. After a walk, single, and hit by pitch to start the bottom of the eighth with the bases loaded, Altuve would drive in his third run of the game, getting a sac fly to extend the lead to two runs at 5-3.

That insurance run proved pivotal, as closer Ryan Pressly was met with a leadoff solo home run by Hernandez, his second of the night for Boston, to make it 5-4. Pressly refocused and was able to get the next three batters in order, though, wrapping up the win to start Houston off with a 1-0 series lead and putting them three wins away from advancing to the World Series.

Up Next: The two teams will have a moderately quick turnaround, with ALCS Game 2 scheduled to start at 3:20 PM Central on Saturday ahead of NLCS Game 1 between the Dodgers and Braves getting the night slot. The pitching matchup is expected to be Nathan Eovaldi for Boston, who is 1-0 with a 2.61 ERA in his two starts this postseason, going opposite Luis Garcia, who had a rough outing in the ALDS for Houston, giving up five runs without completing three innings in Chicago.

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