NASCAR: Defending champ Kyle Busch’s wait for a win ends at Texas

Defending NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Busch had to wait for his first 2020 win in more ways than one this season.

Kyle Busch went nearly a full calendar year between victories on the NASCAR Cup Series level. Three days more was likely nothing.

With inclement weather pushing a majority of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 from Sunday to Wednesday, Busch visited victory lane for the first time this season at Texas Motor Speedway. The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota led a race-high 90 laps en route to victory, including the final 24.

Busch is the defending champion of the premier Cup Series, but has struggled through the defense campaign. The No. 18 was eliminated in the Round of 12 in the playoffs and several prior attempts at a victory were ended by on-track calamities, often through no fault of his own. But a season of heartbreak finally found relief on Wednesday evening.

With the win, Busch has now won at least one Cup Series race in each of the last 16 seasons.

“It was obviously much needed and very much a lot of relief, as well, too,” Busch said in a postrace Zoom session. “For me, having the opportunity to continue that win streak was certainly high on our list, and when you fall out of the playoffs and you’ve got nothing else to race for, that’s all you have to race for is trophies and getting wins for the rest of this year, and it feels really good to be able to come here to Texas and score that win.”

The first 52 of 334 laps of the event were run on its originally scheduled Sunday date before rains and mists took over the track. More 2020-induced chaos awaited Busch, as he was caught speeding on pit road during a caution period induced by JJ Yeley’s crash on lap 22. Busch would work his way up to 12th by the end of the first of two 105-circuit stages, but he moved up four spots after taking only two tires on the ensuing pit stops. He lingered behind various leaders, primarily Clint Bowyer and JGR teammate Martin Truex Jr., before taking the lead at lap 199 when the latter ran out of fuel from the lead. With green flag stops cycling, Busch was able to pit and win the second stage.

During the ensuing pause, a majority of lead-lap cars came back to pit road to top off on fuel for the final run. Busch and Bowyer stayed out and engaged in a battle for the lead until they had to make their own visits to top off.

Bowyer faded from contention when his car failed to get the proper amount of fuel in it, putting Busch in control to take advantage. He would hold off one final charge from Truex and Christopher Bell to earn the 57th win of his Cup Series career. Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman rounded out the top five.

Busch praised the strategy set forth by crew chief Adam Stevens, who was constantly in Busch’s ear over the final segments, asking him to save fuel.

“We can do it under any situation,” Busch said of his relationship with Stevens. “We can do it under pressure situations of racing for a championship and winning the final races at Homestead and bringing home two championships there, we can do it in the Coke 600, we can do it here when we’re knocked out of the playoffs and people would say that we’ve got nothing to race for, but we come out here and we’re able to win. There’s all kinds of different circumstances and different opportunities for us, and I’d like to think that we can be successful for a long time.”

The runner-up finish was bittersweet for playoff contender Truex, whose No. 19 Toyota team endured a rollercoaster weekend. A spoiler issue removed 20 points from Truex’s spot in the standings. Further punishment included the suspension of crew chief James Small and being forced to start from the rear of the field. But Truex made his way into the top five by the time the weather arrived and was able to hold off Bell for second place. The third-place rookie is running his final races in Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 Toyota, which is set to shut its doors, before he joins JGR next season.

Despite the runner-up finish, Truex is currently 36 points behind Brad Keselowski (6th) for the last of four spots for championship contention at the season finale in Phoenix on November 8. Joey Logano (10th) clinched his spot with a win at Kansas Speedway last weekend. Truex, or any of the remaining six drivers who have yet to clinch, can earn an automatic invite with a win at Martinsville Speedway next weekend.

“I feel (bad). The 19 needed to win a race, obviously, in order to move on and punch their ticket to the Championship Round, and I’m that guy that spoils it for them, and that was one of their best mile-and-a-half runs that they’ve had this year,” Busch said with a smile. “I’m thinking of that as we’re coming down to the finish, too, but I’m like, I’ve got to win, man. There’s obviously no team orders and we do things straight up and as fast as we can be, we’ve got to be. Obviously, it (stinks) for them, (but) I did think, too, that they can be really good at Martinsville, so hopefully, they can go out there and do well, maybe win again.  I’d like to win Martinsville. It would really (stink) again if he finishes second to me, but that would be 2020, wouldn’t it?”

Martinsville will host the penultimate race of 2020, the Xfinity 500, on Sunday afternoon (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Race Notes

  • Texas Motor Speedway welcomed a select number of fans to the race weekend, a good portion of whom braved the cold conditions to return on Wednesday. In appreciation, track president Eddie Gossage announced that anyone in the stands during the Wednesday portion would receive a certificate and garage passes to the 2021 NASCAR All-Star Race, which will be held in Texas for the first time in June.

 

  • Seven laps into the Wednesday restart, Matt Kenseth and Bubba Wallace were wiped out from the race by an accident on lap 59. Wallace is running his final races in the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet before he moves to Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin’s new team, 23XI Racing, next season.

 

  • The other caution for an on-track incident came at lap 135, when Joey Gase’s No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet spun out in the second turn.

 

  • Overall points leader Kevin Harvick had a tough week in the Lone Star State. He led the earlier stages of Sunday’s laps, but made contact with the wall at lap 29. The damage affected his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford for the rest of the event, relegating him to a 16th-place finish. Harvick is 42 points ahead of the cutoff line entering Martinsville.

 

  • Another contender, Chase Elliott, ran in the top ten for a majority of the event but ran into trouble toward the end of the second stage. He visited pit road for a fuel-only stop, but felt he had a tire going down when he returned to the track, forcing him to return for another stop. Elliott finished a lap down in 20th and is 25 points behind Keselowski.

 

  • Busch is the first non-playoff contending driver to win a race in the postseason since Kenseth won the penultimate race of the 2017 season at Phoenix.

 

  • Jimmie Johnson’s final race as a full-time driver at Texas ended with an engine failure during the final stage.

For full results, click here

For full standings, click here

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Giants about to have hands full against Tampa Bay’s linebackers

The New York Giants will be playing on primetime once again this week. After their devastating primetime loss to Philadelphia on Thursday night, the Giants will be on primetime again this Monday night to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Buccaneers are red hot and have established themselves as a legitimate Super Bowl contender in recent weeks. Tampa Bay’s offense has exploded with Tom Brady playing at an MVP level. But the true key to the Bucs’ success is their fearsome defense.

The heart and soul of Tampa Bay’s defense lines up right in the middle of the formation. Long-time starting inside linebacker Lavonte David has been his usual dominant self. But now, a new force to be reckoned with has emerged beside David. Second-year linebacker Devin White is a rising star that the Giants need to keep an eye on this Monday.

Lavonte David & Devin White Stats and Highlights

Lavonte David has been the face of the Buccaneers’ defense for years. This year he has been excellent as usual. Lavonte has already racked up 55 combined tackles through 7 games. He has also forced two turnovers, one fumble and one interception. David is as consistent as it gets at the inside linebacker position. But the Buccaneers’ defense has truly benefited from the emergence of David’s inside linebacker companion.

Devin White is having a breakout second season in 2020. White has been making an impact as a pass-rusher from the inside linebacker position. According to Pro Football Focus, Devin White has totaled 17 pressures and 4 sacks this season, both ranking first at the inside linebacker position.

White has freakish athletic ability. He ran an insane 4.42s 40-yard dash (99th percentile) at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine combined with a 39.5-inch vertical leap (98th percentile). He is an explosive young defender that flies around the field making plays.

When the Giants take on the Buccaneers on Monday, they will be facing up against the NFL’s Week 7 Defensive Player of the Week in Devin White. Devin totaled 11 combined tackles and 3 sacks against the Las Vegas Raiders in Tampa Bay’s blowout victory.

Facing off against Lavonte David and Devin White is no easy task for any NFL offense. The New York Giants will need to come up with a clever offensive gameplan to prevent the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ linebackers from suffocating the Giants’ offense in Week 8.

New York Islanders: Can Thomas Hickey revive his career?

New York Islanders, Thomas Hickey

New York Islanders‘ defenseman Thomas Hickey has been on the Islanders for a long time. And by a long time, I mean 7 full years. Thomas Hickey has produced many memorable moments in his 7-year tenure with the Isles.

No Islander fan can forget his overtime winner against the Washington Capitals to clinch their spot in the 2015 Playoffs. Nowadays, Hickey is the 8th defenseman on the Islanders and an AHL mainstay. With the trade of Devon Toews and possibly Johnny Boychuk, can Thomas Hickey make the NHL roster?

No, He Can’t

I’ll be making a case for both sides here because this is a really good argument. Thomas Hickey hasn’t played an NHL game since 2018. And it’s not like Johnny Boychuk or the young Noah Dobson was lightyears ahead of him. Hell, even Sebastian Aho, is ahead of him in the depth chart.

Thomas Hickey won’t play in an Islanders uniform again unless 3 defenders all go down at once. Hickey was terrible in the AHL, as he only recorded 3 points against bad competition. Hickey is an offensive defenseman, 3 points against B-level talent in 14 games his unacceptable. Thomas Hickey is done on the Island. But, no one is taking his $2.5 million dollar cap hit.

Yes, He Can

Thomas Hickey’s time to shine is right now. God has sent down a blessing for Hickey. I mean, Sebastian Aho will never be NHL ready, and who is going to take Boychuk’s spot? Andy Greene is going to be with Nick Leddy. Adam Pelech will obviously be with Ryan Pulock. And Scott Mayfield will be with Noah Dobson. The 7th defenseman, the one who will have to be ready to play every night. Thomas Hickey can get some serious minutes even if a defender doesn’t get hurt. Thomas Hickey’s career can be revived by being a solid 7th defender.

Yankees unlikely to land J.T. Realmuto after latest comments

New York Yankees, JT Realmuto

The New York Yankees finished the postseason with Kyle Higashioka, a career 55 wRC+ hitter, as their starting catcher. The experiment started after it was clear that ace Gerrit Cole felt more comfortable throwing to him than to Gary Sanchez, the former regular at the position. And given that the Kraken could never really get going at the plate (.147/.253/.365, a .271 wOBA and a 69 wRC+) Higgy ended up eating nearly all of his playing time.

Now, there is officially a catching controversy in the New York Yankees. Should they start Higashioka and his superior defense and blocking skills? Or should they ride Sanchez’s slump and try to get him going, knowing that he’s got by far the most offensive potential of the two?

How about a third option: should the Yankees pursue a free agent? Philadelphia Phillies’ J.T. Realmuto is without a team and remains excellent at the plate and behind it (an average of 5.0 fWAR between 2017 and 2019 and a 1.7 mark in the short 2020 season) but he may not be too interested in coming to New York.

Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia wrote on Tuesday that Realmuto is expected to draw interest from both New York teams, the Mets and the Yankees. The Mets, in particular, could make a play thanks to their direct need in the position (they declined to pick up Wilson Ramos’ option) and Steve Cohen’s deep pockets.

Could the Yankees make a play for him?

However, the Yankees might be interested as well given the unclear situation with Higashioka and Sanchez, especially if they choose to trade the latter (highly unlikely.)

Says Salisbury: “According to a person close to Realmuto, the catcher, an Oklahoma native, would like to remain in Philadelphia and is not particularly keen on playing in New York. However, if that’s where the record-setting money is, Realmuto will eat heroes instead of hoagies.”

From his words, we can process that Realmuto, while he may consider the highest bidder, will prefer to re-sign with the Phillies instead of coming to the Big Apple.

It’s still highly unlikely that the Yankees are in a position to offer Realmuto the max contract he is looking for. The Mets would make more sense. However, if they are not the highest bidders, he may not be willing to come to New York.

New York Mets will reportedly decline Wilson Ramos club option

Free agency has officially started, and the first step for all 30 major league teams is to determine which options should they exercise and which players they will opt not to re-sign for the 2021 season. The New York Mets have a couple of cases.

One of them is starting catcher Wilson Ramos. The New York Mets won’t be exercising his $10 million club option for the 2021 season according to New York Post’s Mike Puma, and that officially makes him eligible to sign with any team of his liking.

It also marks the start of the search for a starting catcher by the Mets, who are just a couple of steps away from having a new owner in Steve Cohen.

Given Ramos’ mediocre showing in the 2020 short season, the decision is not coming as a huge surprise. He slashed .239/.297/.387 with a .297 wOBA and a 89 wRC+, hitting five homers in 45 games. Although he managed to improve defensively, his performance was still subpar and the Mets are deciding to move on.

The Mets will be paying a $1.5 million buyout per the terms of the deal he signed before the 2019 season, and he will look for a different club.

His Mets tenure was a disappointment

Ramos was good in 2019, hitting for a 105 wRC+ (basically a tad above league average) but since he came with big expectations, his overall tenure with the Mets was somewhat disappointing.

Ramos’ defensive struggles in 2019 were well-documented, as several hurlers, most notably Noah Syndergaard, openly said that they prefered to throw to Tomas Nido and Rene Rivera, the team’s backup options.

Ramos, since the start of the 2019 campaign, has allowed a whopping 122 stolen bases, by far the highest number in Major League Baseball.

Despite his suspect defense and seemingly declining bat, Ramos should have no problem finding a major league deal in the open market.

Bradley Beal leaves door open for Nets, other contenders

New York Knicks, Marcus Morris

The Brooklyn Nets have an outside chance to land Bradley Beal, if not this offseason, in the foreseeable future.

Expect the Beal trade chatter to continue until next season after the Washington Wizards superstar left the door open for him to bolt out from D.C.

Beal, appearing on J.J. Redick’s podcast The Old Man and the Three, explained why he only signed a one plus one extension instead of the three or four-year deal.

“I want something built around me. I have that opportunity to do it here. I signed my deal and structured it to have some flexibility,” Beal said. “Because at the end of the day, I still want to win. The (Wizards) organization have to show me that we want to win. I want to see what John (Wall) is like [when he returns] as well.”

Beal suprised the league when he signed a two-year, $72 million extension that will keep him in Washington until the summer of 2022 when he can exercise his player option to enter free agency.

If he declines his player option, he would be eligible for a lucrative five-year, $266 million deal or sign elsewhere for a four-year, $198 million contract.

“You still want to be able to protect yourself and kinda be selfish. How can I create some type of flexibility for myself if we aren’t winning, if I do choose to get out.”

The Nets have reportedly discussed last summer on how to acquire Beal as the team’s third star after Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined them last year.

At that time, Beal took the news as a sign of respect.

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of talk,” Beal told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan. “It’s interesting. To me, I look at it as a sign of respect, that I’ve been doing good things and guys want to play with me. That’s an unbelievable feeling. When you hear that Kyrie and KD want you, s—, that’s amazing.”

“At the same time, you don’t know how much there is to it, or how easy it would be to do. And I’ve put down roots in D.C. I’ve dedicated myself to this town, this community. I love it here, and it would feel great to know I could grind out winning here instead of jumping to another team. But I’d be naive to say that I don’t think about it when these stories come up.”

The Wizards are hoping that Wall’s comeback will ease up the load on Beal and help them get back into playoff contention in the East which has gotten stronger with a healthy Durant and Irving in Brooklyn.

Wall has only played 73 games since 2017-18 but looks fine in a recent workout against, ironically, the Nets that surfaced on social media.

Without Wall, Beal had to shoulder much of the load and despite a stellar campaign last season, he wasn’t named to any of the All-NBA teams. Beal averaged 30.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field, 35.3 percent from beyond the arc and 84.2 percent from the free throw line.

He was the first player to average 30 points and six assists who wasn’t named to any All-NBA team.

The Nets as well as the other contenders will be closely monitoring Beal and the Wizards situation.

The pressure is building up in Washington.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo

Mets’ target J.T. Realmuto reportedly ‘not particularly keen on playing in New York’

New York Yankees, JT Realmuto

J.T. Realmuto is an amazing baseball player. He is a great on-field leader from the catcher position, he is a very good game-caller and an overall defensive stalwart. He does all this in addition to being one of the best-hitting backstops in the league. His .266/.349/.491 2020 line translates to an excellent 125 wRC+. He’s consistently great: he averaged 5.0 fWAR per season from 2017 to 2019. The New York Mets are a natural potential landing spot for him.

And we say natural because the Mets have some money coming off the books (eleven players became free agents today) and will have one of the wealthiest owners in MLB starting from next season. Additionally, they won’t have a starting catcher anymore if they decline Wilson Ramos’ club option.

So, Realmuto fits in nicely with what the Mets are doing. But will he be interested in coming to the Big Apple and playing for the New York Mets?

According to Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports, Realmuto would like to remain with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he played (and excelled) the last two seasons, and “is not particularly keen on playing in New York.”

Will he go to the Mets?

However, Salisbury also notes that if New York is “where the record-setting money is, Realmuto will eat heroes instead of hoagies.”

That probably means that if the Mets or Yankees offer him the most money, then he will consider signing with them. It is not uncommon for big free agents to choose wherever they earn the most, which is completely fine and understandable. However, it remains unlikely that the Yankees are the highest bidders, and while the Mets may be in the mix, they will probably face stiff competition.

SNY’s Andy Martino said, after Salisbury’s report, that “there are reasons to doubt” interest in Realmuto from the Mets or Yankees. Sandy Alderson, who will be the team’s president under Cohen, is reportedly not a huge fan of “second generation” free agent contracts.

New York Giants’ OL coach Marc Colombo details Andrew Thomas’ issues

New York Giants, Andrew Thomas

The New York Giants’ kryptonite this season has been left tackle Andrew Thomas, who they spent the fourth overall pick on to solidify the left side of the offensive line.

Thomas, who came from Georgia with high expectations based on his technique and strength, has severely underwhelmed during his rookie campaign. As reported by multiple analysts and former professionals, his tendencies and technique have been all over the place, shooting out of his stance too early and not utilizing his hands properly. Thomas was once a highly regarded tackle for his ability to mirror opposing pass rushers and keep his feet and hands connected.

The New York Giants are doing everything they can to turn things around from Thomas:

Everything he has done so far in 2020 has been the exact opposite of what the Giants drafted him to do, but offensive line coordinator Marc Colombo is confident they can solve his issues.

Columbo stated that a left tackle’s job is to block a defensive end 1-on-1 in the NFL, and losing a majority of the time is simply unacceptable. The Giants aren’t ready to bench him just yet and allow him to watch a new competitor at left tackle, as they feel confident he will make strides in the coming weeks.

Colombo went on to say that “timing” is Thomas’s primary issue. He’s jumping out of his sets too early and punching too quickly, which is throwing off his technique and allowing edge rushers to beat him inside and with speed rushes on the outside.

Through seven weeks, Thomas has a 58.3 overall grade, with a 43.8 pass-blocking grade and a 64.9 run-blocking grade. Last week against Philadelphia, he was a liability in pass blocking but played well against the run.

His run blocking has consistently increased in efficiency the past few weeks, but pass blocking has taken a significant dip. Evening out those numbers is the goal, and he has plenty of time to refine his abilities and make up for his deficient start to the 2020 season.

A former coach of Thomas, Paul Alexander, spoke with Ralph Vacchiano of SNY. What he has seen from the young tackle has made him upset, as his technique has completely changed from Georgia.

“When he was at Georgia, he controlled guys with his hands. So I see something completely different than I saw at Georgia. And my question is: Why are you doing different things than you did? I mean, he was the best tackle in the country. And right now it’s like, ‘Oh my God!’”

New York Mets: Eleven players are now officially free agents

New York Mets, Marcus Stroman

Eleven members of the New York Mets officially hit free agency after the World Series ended on Tuesday. The number is the highest among major league teams, and it signals that the Mets have lots of work to do to put together a team capable of competing with the best of the best.

Outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Jake Marisnick, infielders Jed Lowrie and Eduardo Nunez, catcher Rene Rivera and pitchers Jared Hughes, Rick Porcello, Erasmo Ramirez, Marcus Stroman, Michael Wacha and Justin Wilson are all hitting the market, free to sign with any team of their liking.

Of course, the New York Mets are expected to retain at least some of them. They will presumably try to sign Stroman, and they could use the services and versatility of Ramirez, who had a good season in 2020.

What will the Mets do?

The Mets are not expected to bring Cespedes or Lowrie back, while the rest of the group are possibilities to return. The team needs relievers, so it is possible that Hughes and Wilson come back if the price is right for them.

According to MetsMerized.com’s Jacob Resnick, the Mets have until 5 p.m. ET on Sunday to tender the $18.9M qualifying offer to Stroman, which they likely will, and make decisions on the 2021 options.

Robinson Chirinos ($6.5M, $1M buyout) Todd Frazier ($5.75M, $1.5M buyout) and Wilson Ramos ($10M, $1.5M buyout) all have club options, but the Mets probably won’t bring them back at those prices.

Dellin Betances ($6.8M, $3M buyout) and Brad Brach ($2.425M, no buyout) have player options, and both of them stand a great chance of being exercised.

As you can see, the hot stove season is about to begin. For the New York Mets, it will be under the guidance and leadership of a new ownership group led by Steve Cohen, and with former general manager Sandy Alderson as the team president.

UFC: Robbie Lawler – Mike Perry fight is off

Robbie Lawler

One of the more exciting bouts on the UFC 255 card is off. Per the official Twitter account of Mike Perry (14-6), Robbie Lawler (28-15, 1 NC) has pulled out of their fight with an undisclosed injury. This report was then confirmed by MMA Fighting.

This was expected to be a fun fight for UFC fans. Lawler has long been a fan favorite and Mike Perry is one to always bring the fight. The former UFC welterweight champion was looking to snap his current four fight losing streak.

While Perry on the other hand was looking to win his second fight in a row this year. A win over Lawler would have been the biggest win in the career of Platinum. There is no word yet on how long Lawler will be out due to his injury.

Mike Perry has made it known that he would still like to fight on the November card. He called out Khamzat Chimaev for a fight at UFC 255. Chimaev of course was just booked to headline a fight night against Leon Edwards on December 19th. 

The UFC’s Options

In addition to Chimaev, Perry also called out Darren Till who is scheduled to face Jack Hermansson on December 5th. It’s clear that Perry is itching to get back into the UFC with all of the negative press going on around him.

I think that the UFC will look at potential opponents that make sense for Perry. Assuming that Lawler is going to be out for an extended period of time. If Lawler can bounce back quick, the UFC could always look to book the fight at a later date, perhaps in December.

However, if the promotion needs to find a new opponent, they’ll need to find one that will generate some interest. Potentially a good matchup would be with Niko Price (14-4-1, 1 NC). Price is an exciting fighter who is coming off of a draw against Cowboy Cerrone.

Not sure what the UFC is going to do with Perry, but Price could be an option. I would again advise that the promotion looks for someone who would make a fun fight with Perry to keep the energy level the same for his spot on the card.