THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Talladega preview

NASCAR Talladega preview
Chase Elliot (No. 9) picked up a rare win for Chevy. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

In one of the most anticipated weekends in all of motorsports, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of the famed Talladega Superspeedway for this week’s 1000bulbs 500. The stakes are much higher than the last time we came here as the playoff field of 12 will look to survive and advance to the semifinal round of eight starting in two weeks at Martinsville.

Last week Chase Elliott claimed his second career victory at Dover as he was able to steer clear of trouble and hold off Denny Hamlin for the win. The dominant car of the day was Kevin Harvick. after sweeping both stages and leading a race high 286 laps, a flat tire derailed any chance of victory. On the bright side for Harvick he was able to rebound and finish sixth. With Harvick out of the way, this appeared to open the door for Aric Almirola to finally claim his first win of the season but after a late race caution and a subpar pit-stop, suddenly he found himself in sixth position with six laps to go. After the restart, he was involved in a multi-car crash that ended any chance of victory. After all the attrition, Elliott found himself in the lead and never looked back. With the victory, Elliott moves on to the next round. This victory comes as a surprise seeing how it is only the third victory of the season for Chevrolet.

On Wednesday, Hendrick Motorsports dropped a bombshell as they announced that next season Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson would split at the end of 2018. Starting Next season, Knaus will team up with young rookie William Byron and long-time JR Motorsports crew chief Kevin Meendering will move up and be Johnson’s crew chief. This is one of the biggest surprises in a long time seeing how Johnson and Knaus have worked together since Johnson's Rookie year in 2002. Over the course of nearly 17 seasons, both have had enormous amounts of success as they would go on and win seven championships and 83 race victories. This move is equivalent to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick splitting up as no other driver-crew chief combo have had more success then these two in the sport. Overall, I think the reason for the split lies with the fact that both probably want a fresh start somewhere else. Both are in the midst of their worst season on record as Johnson has yet to win a race in 2019. More than likely, I think that William Byron will benefit the most from this move; now he gets arguably the greatest crew-chief of all time. It will be interesting to see how the move will affect each driver in the future.

The other big storyline was the announcement that fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto will move to Leavine Family Racing and drive the No. 95 Procore Toyota Camry. This is a big deal for him seeing how he will finally get a chance to run in better equipment as the team will form an alliance with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. Many believe that this move will finally propel DiBenedetto to victory lane and more than likely at some point he will get there but as to next season, I am not sure if they are quite there yet. Be on the lookout for this team next season, though.

Brad Keselowski comes into Talladega as the driver to beat. He leads all active drivers with wins here as he has five victories including his first win back in 2009. Many consider him the best driver on plate tracks since Dale Jr. retired in 2016 and it makes sense why seeing how he learned under Jr. back when he started racing. He should be hard to beat as he looks to punch his ticket to the round of eight.

The driver that I predict will go to victory lane this week is, you guessed it, Aric Almirola. If you know me, I have been high on him since it was announced he was moving to Stewart-Haas racing. I have picked him to win at both Daytona and Talladega this season and this week will be no different. Over the course of the last three plate track races, Almirola has come extremely close, from getting crashed out on the final lap in the Daytona 500 to finishing sixth at the race in Talladega in the fall. I really see no reason why he can’t finally break through and win this week so as long as he stays out of trouble. Look for the #10 Smithfield Ford to take the checkered flag come sunday.

Darrell Wallace Jr, is my sleeper pick for this weekend. It’s no secret that 2018 has been a tough season for the rookie driver as he currently sits in 27th place in points. This season he has struggled mightily but has shown flashes on the plate tracks, I can see him mixing it up with the leaders and possibly being in contention to win. Aside from all of the issues this team has getting up to speed, going out and getting a good run at Talladega would be huge. Look for Bubba to have a great race come sunday.

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

 

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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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