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NASCAR: The action heats up at Bristol this weekend

NASCAR: The action heats up at Bristol this weekend
Photo via: Wiki Commons

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for Thunder Valley for the final race of the round of 16. This track is one of the baddest tracks on the schedule and now for the first time, it gets a race in the playoffs. The race will also host fans as it did back in June for the All-Star race so it would be good to see things continue to return to normal as they do in the world. This race will decide who gets to move on to the round of 12 as well, making it all the more urgent. This is going to be a race you won't want to miss.

Last week, Brad Keselowski dominated at Richmond Raceway for his third victory of the year and a trip to the round of 12. This was a clean race, there were no on-track incidents and the only cautions we saw were for the stage breaks. When it was over, Clint Bowyer was quoted as saying "We have to find a way to put on a much better show than that." Personally, while there wasn't a lot of action so to speak for a track called the action track, overall I thought the race had some interesting moments. Plus, it will be a nice contrast for what we see this week at Bristol. Regardless, kudos to Brad Kesewloski for winning. With his new contract signed, it seems like he and his Penske Racing team are all-in for the rest of this season looking for him to be a threat in the next round.

The Silly season remains in full effect as the rumors are swirling around who will be where in 2021. It is looking more and more likely that Denny Hamlin is trying to become a team owner here as there are many rumors pointing to him purchasing the Gaunt Brothers Racing or Germain racing and bringing in Bubba Wallace to drive for him. Of the two teams I mentioned the one that makes the most sense is Gaunt Brothers Racing considering their ties to Toyota racing. I look forward to seeing how this plays out. Besides, it would be awesome to see another owner driver in NASCAR.

The other major rumor surrounds the #48 car. The wild speculation continues as Kyle Larson now becomes the leader in the clubhouse as to who will take over the coveted #48 car in 2021. Many fans rejoiced when these reports came out and it seemed like there was smoke to this rumor. But all of this seemed to be quashed when MRN Reporter Mike Bagley tweeted out that Larson has not applied for reinstatement from NASCAR after his suspension in March. Now this doesn't mean he won't and there is still a chance that he will and when he does, I am sure he will become highly sought after. Personally, I am beginning to come around on him racing in NASCAR again but it seems kind of strange to me that he considered NASCAR a "stepping stone" to racing in the World of Outlaws dirt racing series full time. And now, all of a sudden he wants to go NASCAR racing again. Needless to say, you can't deny the disgraced driver's talent and whoever gets him will definitely be getting a championship contender.

As we know, after this race the playoff field of 16 will be cut down to 12 and the battle for the final spot is heating up. As of now, Clint Bowyer is on the hot seat as he sits three points ahead of William Byron and eight pints ahead of Cole Custer in fourteenth. The drivers in fifteenth and sixteenth are Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney. At this point while Bowyer, Byron and Custer can fall back on points, both Matt and Ryan almost need a win to get into the next round. This is sure to be a major focal point of the race come Saturday night and as the urgency ramps up on a short track, these drivers are going to be hungry to advance. We could very well see some fireworks on and off the track.

With all that said, the driver I am picking to win this weekend is Ryan Blaney. At the beginning of the year after finishing second to Denny Hamlin in a photo finish at Daytona, many pencilled in Blaney as a championship contender. He has backed it up as well. He has eight top fives, eleven top tens and a victory at Talladega. With all of this though, Blaney has not had a very good stretch here. Over the last two weeks, Blaney has finished twenty-fourth and nineteenth at Darlington and Richmond. This has really put him in a tough spot as he is twenty-seven points back. I think this will light a fire under him though, and he is coming to a track where he has been really fast but circumstances have cost him a chance at victory. For instance, the last time the cup series was at Bristol, he seemed to have a car that could contend but after overdriving turn one and crashing out, he was relegated to a last place finish. If he can just put it all together and run a clean race, I see no reason as to why he can't win. It will also be interesting to see how he approaches slower cars. He said earlier this week that he "cautions anyone in front of them cause they won't be in front of them long." This type of mentality is why I think he will win. He is driving with a purpose. I look forward to watching him come Saturday.

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The Astros are back in action Friday night against the A's. Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images.

The Astros need to whip up on the Oakland A’s this weekend in California as they did in sweeping four from them last week at Minute Maid Park. That was the start of a homestand which ended up with seven wins in 10 games. That goes down as a successful homestand, especially since it felt like the Astros’ prior winning homestand came while Donald Trump was President (it actually started in late July). Still, 7-3 doesn’t feel like a smashing success with it ending by dropping two of three games to the lowly Los Angeles Angels.

It is not exactly with bated breath that anyone should be waiting on Jose Abreu’s return to the lineup, but it’s coming. It should not be on this road trip. After the three games with the A’s the Astros move up the coast for a big four game set with American League West leading Seattle. The M's start all right-handed pitchers. That is no time to sit Jon Singleton to see if Abreu has managed to pump a few drops of gas into his tank while spending the better part of this month at the Astros’ minor league complex. It’s not as if Singleton has been stellar since Abreu’s departure, but by comparison, he’s been Lou Gehrig-esque. The series with the Mariners isn’t make or break but the Astros are strongly advised to get at least a split. That it should be Framber Valdez starting the opener Monday night doesn’t breed tremendous confidence, coming off his meltdown outing against the Angels. Another start, another opportunity.

The Mariners are at the Nationals this weekend, starting it a mere four and a half games ahead of the Astros. In four of the five other divisions the Astros' 22-28 record would have them at least 10 games off the lead.

One step forward, two steps back

Speaking of washed-up first basemen, Joey Votto should be a future Hall of Famer. The 40-year-old Canadian is trying to make it back to the big leagues via the minor leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays. Votto was an absolutely tremendous player with the Cincinnati Reds. As the Beastie Boys said, “Ch-check it out.” Over Jeff Bagwell’s first ten seasons with the Astros he hit .305 with a .417 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage, yielding a phenomenal .970 OPS. Over Votto’s first ten full seasons with the Reds: .313/.429/.540 for an exactly phenomenal .970 OPS. Where am I going with this? Read on!

Votto had phenomenal strike zone and bat control. He turned 30 during the 2013 season. That year Votto had 581 at bats. He popped out to an infielder once the entire season. Alex Bregman turned 30 the third day of this season. Bregman popped out to the shortstop four times in the Angels series. So much for Bregman’s “knob past the ball” epiphany that saw him hit three home runs over two games last week. Going into the weekend Bregman has one hit in his last 23 at bats. His season stats continue to be pitiful: a .209 batting average and .607 OPS. Bregman has only struck out once in the 23 at bats of his latest deep freeze. It’s that so much of his contract is feeble. There is a lot of season left for Bregman to build up to decent numbers, but one-third of the regular season will be complete after the Astros play the Mariners Monday night.

While Bregman’s season to date has basically been one long slump, Jose Altuve is in a funk of his own. Since blasting a homer Monday, Altuve is hitless in 12 at bats. Mini-slumps happen to everybody but Altuve’s woes trace back farther. Over his last 15 games, Altuve is batting .175. He last had more than one hit in a game May 5. He’s also drawn just two walks over those 15 games. It’s tough to ever sit Altuve, but he’s probably playing a little too much. Altuve turned 34 earlier this month. He has started 48 of the Astros 50 games at second base. Mauricio Dubon should be getting a start per week at second (and probably another at third given Bregman’s level of play). Over a full season not playing the field once per week still means 135 starts. Altuve should mix in some more at designated hitter (he has just one DH game so far this season). Wear and tear is a real thing, players don’t grow less susceptible to it as they get to their mid-30s.

King Tuck

On the flip side, Kyle Tucker! So far this season, he’s making himself as much money as Bregman is costing himself. Only Shohei Ohtani (1.069) starts the weekend action with an OPS higher than Tucker’s 1.060. The law of averages dictates that Tucker won’t finish as high as 1.060, but if he does, it would be the greatest full-length season offensive performance in Astros’ history. Jeff Bagwell posted an absurd 1.201 OPS in the strike-shortened 1994 campaign. Yordan Alvarez came in at 1.067 in his 87 games played rookie season of 2019. Lance Berkman’s 2001 was a monster. Enron Field was more hitter-friendly then than Minute Maid Park is now, but Berkman’s numbers were “Oh My Gosh!” spectacular. .331 batting average, 55 doubles (second in franchise history to Craig Biggio's 56 in 1999), 34 homers, .430 on-base percentage, .620 slugging percentage, and 1.051 OPS. And that was just Berkman’s second full season in the majors. Lance finished fifth in National League Most Valuable Player Award voting. Giant-headed Barry Bonds won MVP with his 73 home runs among other sicko stats.

* 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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