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The time has come, it's the track we all circle on our calendars, Talladega. Easily one of the most famous racetracks in America, no one can predict what's to come and in every corner, the big one is lurking. In this race last season, we saw five wrecks involving four or more cars. With the urgency of the playoffs, there is a good chance we see lots of torn-up race cars this weekend. This will be a race you won't want to miss as there will be drama aplenty. The pit-road strategy will play a part in the race, but will be much different from what we are accustomed to seeing. At Talladega and Daytona we usually see manufacturers pitting together to make sure they can maintain a pack and get back to the front.

Last week at Vegas, Denny Hamlin cruised to his second victory of the season and clinched his spot in the next round. The race was dominated by Hamlin as he led 137 laps. His only real challenger, Kyle Larson was knocked out of contention after a bad pit-stop. Hamlin has really been peaking at the right time, as he won the opening race in the last round. He is going to be one of the threats for the championship.

While most of the playoff drivers took most of the spotlight last week, one of the best stories of the race was Tyler Reddick. It was another great for the second-year driver as he ran as high as second. I have really been impressed with the young California driver as he continues week in and week out to improve. Making the playoffs this year was a big step for this team and they just continue to build. He could very well be rounding into a championship contender next season.

The playoff race after one week has some pretty big names below the cutline including Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, William Byron, and Christopher Bell. For Harvick, this is not something he is used to as he has made the championship race five times, a record he shares with Kyle Busch. He currently sits seven points behind Brad Keselowski in ninth. This team has been fast and in the top ten, but just hasn't been able to put it together and score a victory. He will be in a good position to make up some points on Brad and keep it close, but will need to avoid the big wreck. This has plagued him in the past two fall Talladega races, as he has been involved in crashes in both of them.

Alex Bowman came into this season in my eyes as a championship favorite and at the beginning of the season, he looked like he was going to be with three victories. He has really been struggling though since his last victory at Pocono. Last week at Las Vegas, he really seemed to have no speed at all as he finished 22nd. He will need to step it up if he wants to make the next round. Talladega is a tough track for him with a mediocre 19.86 place finish. On the bright side, he will benefit from a good 11th place starting spot and will be lined up with teammate William Byron. He is currently 13 points out of eight in 10th place. It will be quite the uphill climb.

Speaking of Byron, he's in the same situation. He's currently 9th in points, only four points behind Brad Keselowski. He has the easiest path to the next round. All he needs to do is put together two races where he finishes better than Brad and based on the season he has been having, he very well could. Last season, Byron was half a lap away from a chance at victory. He will be a contender to win this weekend.

Lastly, Christopher Bell has the steepest hill to climb to make his way into the next round. It would almost appear that he is in a must-win situation in one of these next two races. He currently sits twenty-five points below the cut-off line in 12th place. He barely scraped into the second round but after a third place finish and a few extra stage points, he's been able to keep his head above water. He will need to be near perfect this round to move on.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is a bit of a wild card, but I am going with Matt DiBenedetto. With his 2022 plans highly uncertain next season, this race could possibly be one of his last chances to get a victory in the Cup Series. He has been so fast at the superspeedways and in contention to win each and every year, but something either goes wrong or he makes the wrong move at the wrong time. This time though, he is going for way more and is coming off a great race last week at Las Vegas after finishing 12th. His 25.54 average finish hasn't been the best, but he has been consistently up front. Look for DiBenedetto to capture his first career victory as he rolls off 15th come Sunday.

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The Houston Astros managed to win the AL West once again, and while things got a little nerve wracking toward the end of the season, when it mattered most, the 'Stros took care of business.

It certainly didn't hurt to get a little help from the Mariners, beating the Rangers 1-0 on Sunday, paving the way for the Astros to secure the division. Rangers fans and members of their broadcast team were none too pleased with the Diamondbacks resting some of their starters on Sunday.

But let's be real, with the division on the line, the Rangers couldn't even manage to score a single run on Sunday against Seattle. That's why they're playing in the Wild Card series, not because of how Arizona approached Sunday's game.

So what did we learn during these must-win games over the last week? A lot was made of GM Dana Brown's comments on the team's flagship station. Brown was hoping manager Dusty Baker would put the best offensive lineup on the field. Yainer Diaz did not start a single game of the Diamondbacks series. But Chas McCormick played every game of the Mariners and Diamondbacks series, except for the finale against Seattle, after being hit in the back with a fastball the night before.

Michael Brantley played in two of three against Arizona, so he appears to be an option Dusty will turn to moving forward. And with the Astros only scoring 1 and 2 runs in two of the three wins against the D-Backs, the Astros need every bit of offense they can get.

Plus, we discuss how getting extra rest for Michael Brantley, Jose Abreu, and the bullpen could pay huge dividends for the club. And don't look now, but Jose Abreu is getting hot at just the right time!

Be sure to watch the video above for the full discussion.

And be sure to watch Stone Cold 'Stros (an Astros podcast) every Monday on SportMapHouston's YouTube channel.

Listen to ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 FM for Houston's best sports talk.

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