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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Good news for Jose Altuve. Photo by Harry How/Getty Images.

One never knows how things will play out but of the known General Manager candidates, Jim Crane nailed it in hiring Dana Brown out of the Atlanta Braves' organization where he was Vice President of Scouting. The 55-year-old Brown's scouting and development pedigree is stellar. The Braves have been a talent-producing machine in recent years. Obviously all the credit isn't Brown's but his four years with the Braves preceded by a productive pipeline he was part of in Toronto speak highly of him. Not that it was or should have been the guiding principle to Crane's decision-making, but the Astros now have the only African-American General Manager in Major League Baseball (Ken Williams is Executive Vice President of the Chicago White Sox).

Brad Ausmus is a super-smart guy, but if had he gotten the GM gig it would have been in large part because he was teammate besties with Jeff Bagwell. While “It's not what you know it's who you know” plays a role in many, many hires, it would have been a poor rationale for tabbing Ausmus. Maybe Ausmus would have done a great job. Maybe Brown does a lousy job. Brown was the much more strongly credentialed candidate. While Bagwell has moved way up Crane's confidante list, Brown played college baseball with Craig Biggio at Seton Hall.

Speaking of Halls…

If I could tell you as absolute fact that exactly two members of the 2023 Houston Astros will someday make the Baseball Hall of Fame, who are you picking? Jose Altuve isn’t a lock just yet but he is obvious pick number one. So for the second spot are you going with Alex Bregman or Yordan Alvarez? We’ll get back to this a couple of paragraphs down.

As was basically a given, former Astro (and Phillie, Met, Red Sox, and Brave) Billy Wagner was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week, but as I suggested last week the voting returns were very favorable toward Wagner making the Hall next year, or if not next year in his final year of eligibility on the Baseball Writers Association ballot for the Class of 2025. “Wags” in the Class of ’24 is looking good. Wagner jumped from 51 percent to 68 percent “put him in” votes. The only guy this year to get the necessary 75 percent for election is worthy third baseman Scott Rolen. Two years ago Rolen got 53 percent of the votes needed, last year 63 percent, before getting the call to Cooperstown with 76.5 percent this year. Wagner going from 51 to 68 to 75-plus looks likely. Of course it’s not as if Wagner can pad his case with a good 2023 season, but this is how the process works. The other ballot returnee well positioned to make it next year is former Colorado first baseman Todd Helton. Unlike this year there’s a sure-fire first time ballot guy going in next year. Third baseman Adrian Beltre will undoubtedly wear a Texas Rangers cap on his plaque.

As expected Carlos Beltran didn’t come close to election in his first year of eligibility, but drawing 46 percent of the votes sets him up well to eventually get the Cooperstown call. Beltran was a fabulous player and his Hall credentials are solid. However, no one reasonable would argue that Carlos Beltran was as good or better than Barry Bonds. In his first year of eligibility back in 2013 Bonds garnered 36 percent of the vote. There has been some turnover in the voter pool over the last decade, but it's clear that Beltran’s central role in the Astros’ sign stealing scheme was not held against him to the extent that PED use (actual and/or suspected) was held against Bonds and Roger Clemens. And Alex Rodriguez. And Sammy Sosa. And Manny Ramirez. And others. Foremost right now that’s encouraging for Beltran, but it’s also encouraging down the line for fellow Astros of 2017-18.

What does this mean for Jose Altuve?

If Jose Altuve retired today (perish the thought!) he’d have a good case for the Hall. He had superstar seasons in 2016, 2017, and 2022, and has five other seasons that while not in the realm of his three best certainly rate as excellent. If you judge a player by his five best seasons, there aren’t 10 second basemen in the history of the sport who’d rank ahead of Altuve. Among those who clearly would: Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, and Nap Lajoie. Among those four only Morgan played more recently than 1937. Then there’s a group of arguable guys like Jackie Robinson, Ryne Sandberg, Roberto Alomar, and yes Craig Biggio. Altuve has had the prime of a Hall of Famer. What sort of final numbers will he accrue? In late May or early June he should reach the 2000 hit plateau. How many more prime years does Altuve have left before inevitable decline? His career batting average is .307. Four years ago it was .316. Will Altuve retire a .300 hitter?

Bregman or Alvarez? Bregman gets extra points for being an everyday third baseman as opposed to a left fielder-designated hitter, but by age alone Yordan is the better play. Bregman turns 29 on opening day this year. Yordan doesn’t turn 26 until late June. When Bregman was 25 (2019 season) he put up a season more valuable than Alvarez’s tremendous 2022. In the three years since Bregman hasn’t approached that level, though his big second half last season could be a springboard back to that stratosphere. Yordan is in that stratosphere and figures to stay there for a while if his health holds up.

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Stone Cold ‘Stros is the weekly Astro-centric podcast I am part of alongside Brandon Strange and Josh Jordan. On our regular schedule it airs live at 3PM Monday on the SportsMapHouston YouTube channel, is available there for playback at any point, and also becomes available in podcast form at outlets galore. Such as:

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