THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: The playoffs begin at Darlington

Photo via: Wiki Commons

The playoffs begin for the NASCAR Cup Series and It all begins at Darlington Raceway for the famed Southern 500. They call this track, "the track too tough to tame" as it is one of the roughest tracks on the schedule. Many would consider this track the most challenging on the schedule as there is always a chance that the wall can jump out and bite each driver. It will be interesting to see which driver can come out on top as more than likely the car that can stay the cleanest will go to victory lane. We will also see some great paint schemes as well as it's the annual throwback week, just one of the things that make this race so special.

Last week we saw one of the craziest finishes of the year as William Byorn held off his teammate Chase Elliott for the victory at Daytona. The race was marred by many crashes in the closing stages including a pile-up with two laps to go that collected Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson. This ended the 7 time champion's chances of making the playoffs. It was heartbreaking to see arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of all time fall to where he did and it appeared that he was in prime position to advance and move on as he was above the cutoff line before the wreck. But as it happens on a track like Daytona the big-one struck, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has been pretty much the theme this year for Jimmie, just when he thinks he's got some momentum, something comes along and messes it up.

Like at Charlotte after the Coca-Cola 600 when he was disqualified after finishing third or at Darlington when he crashed while leading. The biggest turning point this season for Johnson though had to be when he was diagnosed with Coronavirus back in July at Indy. Regardless, the fact remains that Johnson was not able to close the deal and get a win to lock him into the playoffs and while it was a disappointing way for him to go out, this season will not define Johnson's legacy among the greats. This man did everything right and represented the sport well. He also brought the sport to new heights as well as he was the first ever NASCAR driver to win the AP Male Athlete of the year back in 2008. It is clear that this sport won't be the same with him gone in 2021. I salute Jimmie on his incredible career.

Last week also seemed as a passing of the torch as Jimmies teammate William Byron went on to his first career victory. The 2018 Xfinity Series champion was finally able to close the deal and get to victory lane in the Cup Series. Overall, he is flying under the radar here in the playoffs, but he has one of the best crew chiefs of all time on the pit-box in Chad Kanaus, and he can very well do some damage going forward. I look forward to seeing his progress in the round of 16 as he won just in the knick of time.

As everyone knows, last week's race was the final race before the playoffs and the field is set. The two obvious favorites that stand out are Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Both drivers have won 13 races combined and appear to be on their way to the championship race in Phoenix, the question is who will be the other two joining them? There have been a few drivers that have really kept a low profile but have had a great season as well, one of those drivers is Brad Keselowski. If this were any other season, Brad would be heavily favored as a championship contender but as everyone knows this isn't any other year, it's 2020. Needless to say, he has been insanely fast as he has won three races with nine top fives and 19 top tens! The consistency is there. If Brad can stay out of trouble I can see him being the third driver in the final four. The other driver to look out for is Chase Elliott. This young man has had a lot to live up to. He is the son of a living legend, there is a lot for him to carry but overall I think he has exceeded expectations and this year he has really put it together. He has put together ten top five finishes with two wins. He has ascended into a championship favorite and I think he is going to be the fourth guy to race for a title at Phoenix!

The driver I have winning this week is Kyle Busch. This has by far been the most challenging season of his career. His average finish this year is a disappointing 15.2, and he also has five DNF's (did not finish) and one big goose egg in the win column. While he is safely in the playoffs and has done a good job at accumulating stage points to fall back on, he would tell you himself that this has been a bad season. Many people are even saying he won't make it past the round of 16, but I am here to tell you that those people don't know Kyle. This is one of the most talented race car drivers of all time and if there is anyone who is primed to make a comeback, it's Rowdy. I look for Kyle to get it together and win this week at Darlington. This is a track that he has run well at over the course of his career. He only has one win here back in 2008 but that doesn't matter, he knows how to get around this place. If he can keep his Elliott Sadler inspired M&M's Camry off the wall and make minimal mistakes, this is a race I can easily see him winning. Look for Kyle to be a threat come Sunday night.

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Life after Correa may not be the worst thing. Composite image by Jack Brame.

Carlos Correa is having a damn good year. The Astros shortstop is hitting .285 with 24 homers, 87 RBI, 72 walks, .862 OPS, a 7.2 WAR, and a .981 fielding percentage. In any other year, those would be numbers worthy of being in the mix for AL MVP (if it weren't for that dastardly Shohei Otani). Correa is also in a contract year. He and the Astros were far enough apart that the season started and he's held true to not wanting to negotiate midseason.

The offers of six years for $120 million and five years for $125 million were both rejected by he and his camp. They're seeking something much longer and for more money on the annual average. With the team unwilling to meet those demands, it seems as if the team and the player are headed for a split.

Lots of Astros fans are not happy with the prospect of Correa leaving via free agency. Some think the team isn't doing enough and should pony up to bring him back. Some feel Correa should take what they're offering because it's a fair deal that'll allow the team to sign other players. Then, there's that small band of us that are totally okay with him leaving.

One of the main reasons I'm okay with him leaving is the players the team still has under control that are potential replacements. Aledmys Diaz and Pedro Leon are the first two guys that come to mind. Diaz is a 31-year-old vet who's stepped up when he's called upon. He can slide over to third and allow Alex Bregman to play shortstop. Leon is the team's 23-year-old hot prospect who signed as an outfielder that the team has been trying to turn into a shortstop. If Correa were to leave, he could instantly plug the hole Carlos would leave behind. Either of those options lead to my next point of being okay with Correa leaving which is to...

...allocate that money elsewhere. Whether it's signing a replacement (at short or third), or boosting the pitching staff, I'll be fine as long as it's money well spent. Signing a shortstop or third baseman would determine where Bregman would be playing. If said player takes significantly less than Correa and fills 70-80% of his offensive shoes, it'll be worth it. Others will have to step it up. If they find a deal on a top of the rotation starting pitcher, that would be ideal as well. As I stated a couple of weeks ago, this team has employed a six-man rotation, but doesn't have a true ace. Spending anywhere from $20-30 million a year on a top-notch pitcher to add to the staff would bolster this staff in more ways than one. It'll finally give them the ace they lack, plus it'll bump all the young talent (still under team control) down a peg creating depth and perhaps even creating bullpen depth.

The only way any of this works is if Correa isn't back. Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander's money comes off the books also. Freeing up that much payroll and not re-appropriating those resources to ensure this team stays in contention would be a first degree felony in sports court. I don't think Jim Crane wants that for this team. I for sure don't think James Click wants that as his legacy. Let's sit back and watch how the organization maneuvers this offseason and pray they get it right.


Editor's note: If you want to read the other side of the argument, check out Ken Hoffman's piece from Tuesday.

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