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NASCAR is California Dreamin' at Auto Club Speedway

NASCAR is California Dreamin' at Auto Club Speedway
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NASCAR

NASCAR continues its West Coast swing as they head for the high banks of California for the Auto Club 400. Opened in 1997, this track was sort of the prototype for what we would see 20 years later, only this track is slightly larger as it is exactly two miles in length. Because of how large this track is, usually we see cars get three and four wide especially after a restart. After a while though, the leader is usually able to find clean air and separate himself from the field.

With the spoilers on the rear being so large, one thing I have observed has been how these cars stall out when they get side-by-side. Because the rules package of this year is so similar to last year's, I would imagine that there will be much of the same thing. After the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant last month, NASCAR announced that there will be numerous tributes to the fallen basketball icon. Drivers William Byron and Ryan Blaney will both be racing with a purple and gold paint scheme to pay homage to him and his daughter Gigi and the seven others that passed away in the wreck. Personally, I think that this is one of the best things that NASCAR and their employees have done in a while. As we all knew, he was much bigger than basketball with everything he has done off the court. I am sure wherever he is in the universe, he would be proud that a sport he had little connection to is honoring him. Other tributes will include a moment of silence and his number embroidered in the front stretch grass.

Last week, as predicted Joey Logano went on to claim his 24th career victory at Las Vegas. In the closing stages, Ross Chastain spun out causing a late race caution. In a strange decision, race leader Ryan Blaney and a crowd of others decided to pit with four laps to go, costing them valuable track position and essentially any chance at a victory. While Blaney and others were out of contention, many others including the winner all stayed out. For Logano this was the winning move as he was able to hold off Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

While the season is young, there have been several drivers who have had some of the best results of their career. One of those drivers has been Darrell Wallace Jr. He started 2020 with a respectable 15th place showing and then backed it up with a sixth last week. While the car wasn't as good in the early stages, Wallace had done a great job making his way back into the top 20 and then found himself in the top 10 after his crew chief Jerry Baxter kept him out on the race track. He was able to hang on with old tires and get a sixth place showing. Another driver who has been impressive this year has been Corey Lajoie. After a bitter-sweet eighth place finish at Daytona, Corey was able to follow that up with a solid 15th place finish. Others that were impressive were Stenhouse who finished third and Dibenedetto who finished second. While the season is still very young, it has been refreshing to see such parity in the sport. I don't think anyone around the sport could have predicted what we have seen so far. It should be fun to watch going forward.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is William Byron. When it was announced that Byron would be inheriting Chad Kanus from Jimmie Johnson last year, many believed that Byron would finally make the leap and contend for wins and while he made the playoffs, he wasn't able to get to victory lane. This year, the young man has been insanely fast. At Daytona he was running in the top five before crashing out, the next week at Vegas he was also up front for a good portion of the race before spinning out on the final lap. This week, I think it will be much different and he will claim his first career win. While he has struggled here in his first two races finishing 15th both times, this team has improved greatly. Not only has Byron improved but his Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott have been fast as well. Over the off-season Chevrolet has made vast improvements to their Camaro including improving the nose of the car, which was a massive obstacle last year. Because of this, I see Byron and his team reaping the benefits and becoming the first Hendrick car to go to victory lane in 2020.

The sentimental favorite this week as he will be every week is Jimmie Johnson. As we all know, this will be the final time he will run at his home-track. Because of this, his wife and daughter will give the command to fire engines before the race starts making it all the more special for the seven time champion. If there was ever a place that he would finally break this long winless streak, this track might be at the top of the list for sure. In the sport's 23 year history here, no one has won at this track more than he has. He even got his first win here all the way back in 2002. I look for Johnson and his Hendrick teammates to battle it out for the victory come Sunday.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com the best website for all NASCAR stats)

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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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