NASCAR: South Point 400 preview, predictions

Keep an eye on Joey Logano this weekend. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The Round of 12 begins this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the South Point 400. This track is a 1.5 mile oval with 12-20 degrees of banking. Beginning back in 2018, a second Vegas race was added to the playoffs. This will be a vastly different race than what we saw in the spring, with the race being at night as opposed to its usual mid-afternoon start-time. There will be plenty of strategy in this race with the stages ending at lap 80, 160, and 267 so there is a good chance we see drivers try and split them in half depending on where the cautions fall. It should be interesting to see what type of race we see come Sunday.

Last week was one of the most dramatic races of the season as Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, and Chase Elliott all battled for the victory. The race was not without controversy though after Elliott and Harvick made contact in the later stages battling for the lead. Because of this, Elliot's tire went down and it cost him a shot at the victory. This would be Larson's sixth victory of the season and his ticket to the next round. When the checkered flag flew, both Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott had a very heated discussion regarding what took place on the track. This sent the NASCAR world into a frenzy, but it appeared that both drivers were able to talk it out in the end and this won't carry over into the rest of the playoffs.

With the next round of the playoffs beginning, many would consider this the wild-card. It features both Talladega and the Charlotte Roval, two tracks that have been known to produce some of the most dramatic finishes over the past couple of years. Because of this, it will be extra important for the field of 12 to get a good result here. Kevin Harvick has to be one of those drivers. As I mentioned earlier, he's been in the headlines lately and after everything that has gone on at Bristol, going to Las Vegas couldn't come soon enough. He's found plenty of success here as he's scored two victories, seven top fives, and 12 top tens at this track. The success has faded a little bit though as he finished 20th here in the spring. It's a much different race now. He will roll-off 5th.

The other driver in the Round of 12 in need of a momentum boost is Brad Keselowski. As it's well known that Brad has one foot out the door at Penske Racing, most can tell his impending exodus has been affecting their results. While he and his team have been decent, his results haven't exactly shown him as a championship contender. Luckily, last week at Bristol, he was extremely fast and he is also going to a track he has been good at in the past. He rolls off 8th, look for him to be a contender for a top five.

The driver that I have winning this week is Joey Logano. It has been kind of an under-the-radar type of playoffs for the 2018 champion, in the opening round he scored a top-ten at Darlington, a top-five at Richmond, and finished a respectable 11th at Bristol. There have been times this season where Logano has had a lot of speed. But it seems like he hasn't been the fastest car as he only has one victory this season But this week he is going to a track where he has a lot of great experience. Overall, among all active drivers, he has the highest average finish, two victories and the second-most laps led behind Kevin Harvick. The one thing that may hurt him has been his team's results with the 550 hp package, but luckily, he will benefit greatly from his ninth place starting spot. Look for Logano to punch his ticket to the round of eight with a victory.

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The Astros are utilizing a 6-man rotation. Composite Getty Image.

The Astros should schedule an Old-Timers Game, if not annually maybe every other year. Only the Yankees have regularly played Old Timers Games and it’s a highlight in the Bronx every season. The Astros have plenty enough history to welcome back an ample number of guys to make for a fabulous event. Maybe they could tie it into their now annual Hall of Fame Weekend. Anyway, don’t you feel that if Jose Altuve took part in an Old Timers Game in 2050 he’d bang out a couple of hits, and then if the Astros played him in the regular game he’d line one more hit somehow, at age 60?

After missing the first 43 games of the season while recovering from his broken thumb, Altuve went 0 for four in his first game back, but has since been generally fantastic with his OPS through nine games played at 1.013. It won’t stay that high, but Altuve is a direly needed upgrade to the Astros’ offense which has been utterly mediocre. Offense is the reason the Astros continue to look up at the Texas Rangers in the American League West. The Rangers’ offense has been fantastic, outscoring the Astros by a whopping 100 runs through the first third of the season.

As the regular season entered its middle third this week, the Astros are in the middle of playing a game in 17 consecutive days. It’s their longest stretch of the season without an off day. They are inserting Ronel Blanco as a sixth starting pitcher in the rotation for a couple of turns. The point of mixing in a sixth starter isn’t that the Astros are teeming with guys who belong in a big league rotation. The 29-year-old Blanco is not a notable prospect. This is about lightening the load a little on two guys: Cristian Javier and Hunter Brown.

In becoming a rotation mainstay last season, Javier blew past his previous biggest season workload by nearly 50 innings. He’s on pace to go another 25 innings beyond that this year without even accounting for the playoffs. Hunter Brown last year set his professional high with 130 innings pitched encompassing work with the Space Cowboys and Astros. Brown is on pace for about 170 innings this regular season. That’s a significant jump, and of course the Astros are hoping for another postseason of multiple rounds. Javier, Brown, and Framber Valdez are the three most critical pitchers on the staff, and the Astros hope they remain healthily so for several more years.

Lance McCullers’s latest recovery setback makes his plight increasingly sad. Well, except for him on payday. The odds now lopsidedly favor McCullers never again pitching a near fully healthy and effective season. His only one to date was 2021 (until he broke down in the playoffs), the year before his five year 85 million dollar contract kicked in. McCullers pulls down 17 mil this year (And again next year. And in 2025. And 2026), exactly two and a half times what Framber Valdez makes. I reckon Framber’s representation is aware of this, as it is of the five year 63 million dollar deal the Astros struck with Cristian Javier. Framber is more than three years older than Javier, but has been better, and can hit free agency after the 2025 season, the same time Javier could have gone to market.

Timing isn’t everything but it darn sure can matter. The Astros’ two best relief pitchers through May were Hector Neris and Phil Maton. Neris enters June with a 1.19 earned run average, Maton even better with a teeny-weeny 0.68 ERA. Maton has been especially amazing, given that last year while not pitching very well he posted his career best ERA at 3.84. His 2022 ended ignominiously when after giving up a hit to his brother Nick in the regular season finale, Phil took the ding-a-ling of the week award by breaking his pitching hand punching his locker, sidelining him for the postseason. The Hurt Locker won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2010. Now Maton is up for Best Pitcher (per inning worked). Both Neris and Maton were James Click acquisitions. Both become free agents after this season.

Up next

Four games with the Angels at Minute Maid Park through the weekend mean the amazing Shohei Ohtani is in town. It’s “Sho-time” on the mound Friday night in a doozy of a pitching matchup with Framber, with Ohtani batting in at least three of the four games. In one player the Angels have a pitcher as good as Cristian Javier and a hitter better than Kyle Tucker. And the Angels will probably miss the playoffs again anyway. And then lose Ohtani in free agency. After the Angels series the Astros are on the road next week. They start with four games at Toronto against the Blue Jays’ very potent lineup, then it’s three at Cleveland vs. the Guardians whose offense has been pathetic so far this season.

Walk this way

Geek Astro factoid of the week: Jeremy Pena drew two walks in Tuesday’s win over the Twins. In his rookie season, Pena had only one two walk game, also in May, also against the Twins. Tuesday’s bases on balls finally got Pena into double digits for the season. He has just 11 walks drawn (largely explaining his weak .307 on-base percentage) vs. 50 strikeouts.

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