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NASCAR playoffs at Vegas: South Point 400 preview, picks

NASCAR playoffs at Vegas: South Point 400 preview, picks
Joey Logano looks like a good bet this week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads to Sin City this week for the South Point 400. This is the first race of the Round of 8 also known as the semi-final round of the playoffs. A win here for advanced drivers will assure them a spot in the championship race at Phoenix. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a mile-and-a-half track shaped like a bullring. This track is hell on tires, but luckily, the track temperature will be much cooler this time than it was in the spring.

Last week in dramatic fashion, Christopher Bell took the checkered flag at the Charlotte Roval to advance to the Round of 8. The race was pretty tame for most of the day as most drivers had an extremely hard time passing. It wasn’t till the final two laps when a caution came out for a sign on the racetrack, after this we would see absolute chaos. Christopher Bell would use his fresh tires to power past the first three cars to take the lead. The battle would be for the final transfer into the Round of 8 as Kyle Larson would have mechanical issues that would knock him out of the playoffs by Chase Briscoe. This wasn’t without controversy as Briscoe needed to pass two cars to move into the next round, one of those cars was his teammate Cole Custer. Going into the backstretch, Custer backed off the throttle enough to let his teammate go by and get the points he needed to move on.

After an investigation, NASCAR president Steve Phelps came to the conclusion that Stewart-Haas Racing manipulated the outcome of the race and leveled the #41 team with a massive penalty. The team was docked 50 points, a $200,000 fine, and an indefinite suspension for crew chief Mike Shiplett. Not surprisingly, car owner Tony Stewart is not happy about this, stating that “if he didn’t have any appearances he had to be at, he wouldn’t go to a single NASCAR race for the rest of the year.” While I can understand Tony’s frustration, this was fairly black and white, as it was blatantly obvious that the 41 helped his teammate. On the radio, Shiplett was heard saying “back er down it looks like you got a flat.” It was next to impossible for the crew chief to know if his driver had a flat, considering he was on the complete opposite end of the racetrack, and he couldn’t see the car.

Aside from all this, NASCAR and the race teams are further apart than they have ever been. The car owners are upset that the racetracks are making too much money, the cars are not safe enough, and the sanctioning body is disputing everything. According to reports, the racetracks (that are owned by NASCAR) are taking up 93 percent of the revenue that comes in from television and ticket sales. NASCAR’s retort was that the teams were only going off of how much the charters were worth, and that they are receiving much more money than being reported.

After all the turmoil, NASCAR made a peace offering to the race teams by announcing that they will cover all the costs of the new car upgrades for 2023. Let's hope the two sides can make an agreement, so we don’t miss any races after the media contract expires in 2025.

There is some news coming down this Saturday as 2004 champion Kurt Busch is expected to announce his retirement. This is something that we had all been fearing was the case, as he has not raced since Pocono in July. The road for Kurt was never easy, as he faced plenty of adversity over the course of his twenty-year career. Busch would be involved in multiple altercations with drivers like Jimmie Spencer and Greg Biffle. Throughout the 2010’s Busch would struggle as he would lose his ride at Penske after verbally berating ESPN Pit Reporter Jerry Punch in 2011 at Homestead and would have the most difficult year of his career in 2012 after driving for James Finch. He would then completely rebuild his career the next year driving for Furniture Row and making the chase for the cup and finding new employment at Stewart-Haas Racing, Ganassi and 23xill over the next 7 years. He would win in every car he drove in. There is no doubt that Kurt is a first-ballot NASCAR Hall of Famer, and he will be missed.

The driver that is expected to replace him at 23XI is Tyler Reddick. There was a lot of talk about him finishing out his contract at RCR in a third team, but Toyota has since bought out the remaining year in his contract and will bring him to their team a year earlier.

The driver I have winning this weekend is Joey Logano. No one has been as consistent as the 2018 championship in these playoffs, and now he’s going to one of his personal best racetracks. In his 18 starts here, Logano has won twice, 6 top-five finishes, and 11 top-tens. It’s clear that Joey has a championship-caliber pace and a win at Las Vegas will get him one step closer to that second title.

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MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says changes could be coming in 2025. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

Max Scherzer logged at least 179 innings in 10 of his first 16 years in the majors. And the three-time Cy Young Award winner learned some tough lessons on the road to pitching deep into games.

That's one reason why the Texas Rangers right-hander thinks Major League Baseball needs to look a lot deeper than a roster limit if it wants to return starting pitching to prominence.

“I became a better pitcher once I went through three times in the lineup and was failing on that third time through the lineup,” the 39-year-old Scherzer said. "That's every young pitcher's struggle, is learning how to pitch three times through a lineup. ... We’re so scared now to let guys fail.”

The state of starting pitching has the attention of MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, who said in October the league is considering lowering the maximum of 13 pitchers per team to 12 possibly as soon as the 2025 season — with the goal of placing a greater emphasis on starting pitchers.

Big league starters averaged 15.4 outs and 85.1 pitches last year, according to Sportradar, and 15.6 outs and 84.9 pitches in 2022. But the numbers were 17.4 and 93.1 as late as 2015, and 17.8 and 98.6 in 2000.

“I grew up a fan of the game, and me and my dad used to pick Astros games based on when Roy Oswalt was pitching,” Chicago Cubs right-hander Jameson Taillon said. “We would look at pitching matchups, that's what we would do. Nowadays, I feel like that allure is gone a little bit.”

MLB wants to put that allure back in the game, but it's a tricky, multifaceted issue.

Pitching prospects are closely monitored on their way to the majors, and deviating from the organization's plan could put the careers of minor league managers and coaches at risk. There is more arm talent in big league bullpens than ever before, and reams of data that illustrate the danger of leaving a pitcher in for too long.

“From a fan perspective, yeah, to see a guy in there to go seven, eight innings, I absolutely get it,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “Doesn’t necessarily help you win baseball games, and I’m in the business of winning games.”

While a 12-pitcher limit could incentivize teams to let starting pitchers go deeper into games, it would add more stress to bullpens. It also could prompt teams to shuttle their middle relievers from the majors to the minor leagues even more — regardless of their performance.

The long-term answer most likely lies in the lower levels of the minors and how baseball develops its next generation of starters.

“It starts with training in the minor leagues,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “That's where it all begins. It’s hard to do it when guys are coming up. They’re not trained to do that. Now you're going to ask them to get you deeper in the games and now you’re risking injury. So you got to be smart about that.”

The focus in the minors is more on stuff, Taillon said, and trying “to raise guys' ceiling at a young age."

“You see guys nowadays get called up who've never thrown five innings in their life,” he said. “It's crazy.”

Pitch counts, especially for baseball's top prospects, prevent pitchers from working deep into games in the minors.

Scherzer, who threw at least 95 pitches in 15 starts last year, thinks more latitude in the minors would help.

“I've been developed to throw, call it 105, 110 pitches on a five-day rotation,” he said. “It's the rest. It's more about the pitch count and then getting the appropriate amount of the rest. I don't understand why we keep cutting that pitch count lower and lower, especially for the guys who are being developed.”

Scherzer called a 12-pitcher roster limit “a terrible idea,” but he agreed that it would take some sort of action to reverse the current trend with starting pitching.

“We need to incentivize keeping the starter in the game longer,” he said. “We’re going to have to come up with rules to do this. It’s not going to self-correct.”

Once pitchers make it to the majors, they are often pulled before the lineup turns over a third time because of statistics that show hitters typically have more success in their third plate appearance against the same pitcher.

It could be an ace right-hander rolling along with a low pitch count — with no sign of trouble — and the manager makes the move because it's easier to address why he took him out than why he left him in for too long. That's an attitude that would be difficult for Major League Baseball to take out of the game.

“Trusting what you’re seeing, trusting your eyes and knowing when those times are to be able to let them go, I think you might start to see that come back a little bit more,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "There’s no refuting the numbers. It’s just like being able to recognize when it’s time to let them let them go.”

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