​NASCAR: YellaWood 500 preview, picks

​NASCAR: YellaWood 500 preview, picks
Start your engines! Photo via: Wiki Commons.

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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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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