THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: The regular season concludes at Daytona

NASCAR: The regular season concludes at Daytona
Photo via: Wiki Commons.

It's crunch time, it's the final race of the regular season and what better place to have it than at Daytona International Speedway. This is the first time we will see a NASCAR race at Daytona outside it's February and July dates. At first this move was met with much criticism from fans and media members including myself, but now with the implications we are seeing, the move has shifted more favorably among the NASCAR world. Everything is now on the line now and there is sure to be plenty of drama. I look forward to watching Saturday night.

Unlike this week, last week's doubleheader at Dover was fairly tame as the usual suspects Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick went on to win their 6th and 7th races of 2020. Both of these drivers continue to establish themselves as the two championship favorites as they led a combined 338 laps. During Harvick's win on Sunday he was able to clinch the regular season championship giving him fifteen extra points come the playoffs. These two drivers are almost assured that they will race for the title at Phoenix barring a major collapse. It will be fun to see how this battle rages on over the next eleven weeks.

The silly-season is in full effect as two major rumors came down this week. One of them involves Denny Hamlin. This one seems crazy but after talking to a few of the media members and a MBM Motorsports employee, I can confirm that there are some legs to it. The story is that Michael Jordan is interested in purchasing a stake in Richard Petty Motorsports and bringing Denny Hamlin along with him. They will form an alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing and potentially could bring Denny Hamlin along to drive the #23 Toyota Camry. The other major factor is Bubba Wallace and where he goes and with this arrangement, from what I heard, he would be staying in the #43 car.

Now while yes it is true that one Michael Jordan's reps denied the reports and stated that there was no truth to the rumor, it was also confirmed on the popular Door Bumper Clear podcast that Jordan was the celebrity that RPM owner Andrew Murstein had spoken to about an investment in the team. It makes sense that this podcast in particular would have this sort of information considering one of the hosts, Freddie Kraft, is Bubba Wallace's spotter. Personally I think this will be HUGE for the sport of NASCAR. Over the course of his life, MJ has always been a big racing fan seeing that he is from North Carolina. He is also no stranger to autoracing as he purchased an AMA Motorcycle racing team back in 2006. I look forward to seeing where this goes over the next few weeks.

The other big rumor involved the #48 car and who will be driving it next year. It would appear as a new leading candidate has emerged and it's Xfinity Series regular, Noah Gragson. On Wednesday, Gragson talked about signing some "very important paperwork" and then tweeted a pen alluding to a new deal that he was signing. This set the racing world a flame with speculation and 2021 paint schemes but on Thursday it was announced that Noah will return to the #9 Camaro for Jr Motorsports in the Cup Series. Overall, I think Gragson can be a good driver in NASCAR but another year in the Xfinity Series would do him good.

Speaking of the #48 car, the battle for the final spot in the playoffs continues between Jimmie Johnson and William Byron. After a third place finish on Sunday, Johnson is now a mere four points back from his teammate William Byron. This battle is interesting considering they are both on the same team, not to mention Byron's crew chief Chad Kanaus worked with Jimmie during all seven of his championships. It will be quite the battle as Johnson's Crew Chief Cliff Daniels told the media that working with Byron will be essential to the #48 team making the playoffs. There is a chance that both drivers can get in by one of them winning and the other driver getting the 16th spot, which is very likely considering Matt DiBenedtto is only 9 points above the cut-off line. It will be fun to see this going into Saturday's race. Anything can happen including the possibility of a surprise winner.

And speaking of a surprise winner. The driver I predict to take the checkered flag this week will come as a surprise to most, but I am taking Ricky Stenhouse Jr to win the Coke Zero Sugar 400. As we saw last time here, Stenhouse was well in position to make a run for the victory. He started on pole and was in the lead pack for most of the race but later into the race, Stenhouse crashed coming into pit lane costing him a chance at victory. He followed it up at the next restrictor plate track by finishing second in a photo finish with Ryan Blaney. The results are there and he can make it happen, he just needs to finish the battle. He won here at Daytona back in 2017. Even though he has shown a lot of success and promise on these types of racetracks, he has been under much controversy in his tactics on these types of tracks as he has caused a few incidents over the years. He has seemed to clean up his driving through and I look for him to continue to improve and take the victory come Saturday and punch his ticket to the playoffs.

Most Popular

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome

Listen Live

ESPN Houston 97.5 FM
The Astros host the Orioles on Friday night. Composite Getty Image.

Say it with me: The Astros aren’t dead yet. The Astros aren’t dead yet. The Astros aren’t dead yet! The odds favor them missing the postseason for the first time since 2016, but they definitely aren’t dead yet. Too much season left.

The Astros sure hope they hit their season standings rock bottom in falling 10 games back of Seattle in the American League West Tuesday. Two wins over the hapless White Sox later, coupled with two Mariner losses in Cleveland, and the deficit is eight going into the weekend. The Astros’ real race may be for a Wild Card. On that front they sit six games behind Minnesota, six and a half back of Kansas City. The Twins and Royals currently hold the second and third Wild Card slots. The Astros also trail Boston by five games.

The Astros’ season needs some positive jolts if it is not to slip away. A shot at one comes Friday night with pitcher Jake Bloss called up from Double-A Corpus Christi for his Major League debut. He is merely tasked with facing the best offense in the AL as the Baltimore Orioles visit Minute Maid Park this weekend. Bloss was the Astros’ third round draft pick last summer. He turns 23 on Sunday. He started well this season at High-A Asheville earning the move up to AA. As a Hook, Bloss was spectacular in posting a 1.61 earned run average over eight starts with a scant 19 hits allowed over 44 2/3 innings. Bloss gets the fast big league call out of necessity (with Justin Verlander on the injured list), because he excelled, and because the Astros have no significant pitching prospect knocking at the door from Triple-A Sugar Land. Not one guy in the Space Cowboys’ rotation has given up fewer hits than he has thrown innings. The Pacific Coast League is a hitters’ league, but that is a damning stat.

Blame game

With the Astros’ season a big fail to this point, it is the nature of the beast for some to call for the head(s) of Manager Joe Espada and/or General Manager Dana Brown. Espada has certainly not distinguished himself as some brilliant rookie skipper, but blaming numerous lackluster player performances on him is classic scapegoating. Brown is in his second season and does have a couple of stains on his early record, but the foremost task Brown was charged with at hire was rejuvenating the Astros’ weak farm system. It takes two or three draft classes to infuse some depth of young talent. If the Astros are sellers as the trade deadline approaches, selling is another avenue through which Brown tries to add good prospects.

Brown picked Bloss. Brown’s first first round pick was shortstop Brice Matthews who also recently earned promotion to Corpus Christi. If Jeremy Pena doesn’t show improvement, and if Matthews is fulfilling his potential, he could be challenging for the shortstop job by the end of next season. 2023 second round pick, pitcher Alonzo Tredwell, has been bad so far with the Low-A Fayetteville Woodpeckers.

Midsummer Classic

The first phase of All-Star balloting ends Thursday at 11AM Central Time. The Astros’ representation on the American League team is simple: three definites and one maybe. Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, and Yordan Alvarez all rightfully are poised to be elected starters. Altuve has to hold off the Rangers’ Marcus Semien, but at minimum will be added as a reserve. For Altuve it will be his ninth All-Star team, adding on to his franchise record after not making the team last year because he missed the first month and a half of the season with a broken thumb.

Tucker and Alvarez will both become three-time All-Stars. Neither has been voted a starter before. Even with the time he’s missing on the injured list, Tucker belongs in the outfield with the Yankees’ superstar combo of Aaron Judge and Juan Soto. Alvarez’s opportunity to win the vote at designated hitter opened up when Shohei Ohtani switched leagues in signing with the Dodgers.

Last year the Texas Rangers dominated the AL lineup with five starters. It was not an omen that they would go on to win the World Series. This year Arlington hosts the game at Globe Life Field, but Semien is the only Ranger anywhere close to the lead in the fan voting.

As for the one Astro All-Star maybe, that is Ronel Blanco. The 30-year-old has come out of nowhere to be the Astros’ ace, but he is not a lock. I don’t think his foreign substance suspension hurts much other than it factors into Blanco having pitched fewer innings than almost all other candidates. It’s a matter of math. A maximum of nine starting pitchers make the squad, there may only be eight taken. It’s not hard to name nine guys who could get the nod over Blanco, especially when you factor in that every team must be represented. Tyler Anderson is the most deserving Angel. Erick Fedde or Garret Crochet is the most deserving White Sox (Sock?). The Seattle Mariners have no deserving everyday player, though some might argue Cal Raleigh if three catchers are taken. The M’s are dominating the AL West on the back of stellar starting pitching. It’s hard to see no Mariner starter getting picked, although only Logan Gilbert at 2.93 has an earned run average within 0.50 of Blanco’s 2.43. Blanco has three more starts to strengthen his case before the staff is named July 7.

*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.

SportsMap Emails
Are Awesome