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With the playoffs firmly underway, it’s the business end of the NASCAR season, bringing plenty of tension to the sport’s protagonists. But this past weekend, as Chase Elliott won at Talladega Superspeedway, drivers’ disquiet that has bubbled beneath the surface for most of the season came to a head: questioning the safety of the Next Gen car.

Kurt Busch and Alex Bowman are missing from the grid with concussions suffered in the Next Gen car, Cody Ware confirmed Tuesday that he’ll skip the Charlotte Roval because of the broken foot he endured in the Next Gen. Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have been vocal in their criticisms of NASCAR’s approach to safety this season. On Saturday, Elliott said he felt safety in the series was going “backward.”

With so many opinions being exchanged on what is the biggest topic in any motorsport, ESPN turned to Ryan McGee and Marty Smith for their takes on driver safety in NASCAR.

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Smith: It’s really obvious when you hear champion-level, first-ballot Hall of Fame-level drivers voicing the concern that they are. Hamlin was extremely vocal at Talladega that the racecar is not as safe as it should be, and that drivers have told that to NASCAR time and again. According to Hamlin, NASCAR wanted the Next Gen car on the racetrack at all costs, and then he repeated himself: at all costs. I’ve had conversations with drivers, this is something that they are very concerned about, and they are calling for change. I would expect NASCAR will listen to them, and they better listen to them.

McGee: And I think that’s the difference now versus not that long ago, and certainly not when you and I first started covering the sport, is that they’re going to listen. You and I have lived through multiple generations of racecars now, and there have been complaints before, and a lot of times the response was, “Well, this is what you got. Put your people to work.” I really think now the difference is that NASCAR President Steve Phelps talks with drivers all the time. It had to get to an unfortunate position with multiple drivers, but it sounds like they’re in the process of trying to make changes as immediately as they possibly can. Is that your take?

Smith: They need to, and I do think they’re going to make changes. These cars are very rigid. There’s not a lot of give when you crash, and they don’t crush the way that the previous racecar did. And so the previous racecar, because there was more crush in it, there was more give in it. It wasn’t as rigid. That energy was dissipated away from the driver in a different way than it is now. More energy is making its way to the driver now because the car is so much stiffer.

McGee: I go back to when I covered the Indy Racing League back in the late ’90s, and that was like this: This was a spec car, there wasn’t a whole lot of creative engineering going on the race shop; it was, “This is the car you have.” They were breaking guys’ backs because everything had been focused on forward impacts. They weren’t thinking clearly about cars backing into walls. Everybody was fine if they crashed straight ahead or even if they crashed side to side, but as soon as they backed in even a tiny little impact, they were cracking vertebra. That’s what this feels like. There was so much focus in one direction that maybe there wasn’t enough in the other direction.

Smith: The drivers will tell you, they implored NASCAR: “We need to change this.” And according to those drivers, NASCAR was hell bent to get this thing to the race track, and they did that, and it came with great fanfare. You and me have been very, very complimentary of the racing and the show, but when the show ends up with guys that maybe did not come out of accidents the way they would’ve in a past racecar, then it’s time for change. Period.

McGee: Everybody I’ve talked to is working really hard on this now. It’s just a matter of getting it out on a race track on a Sunday.

Smith: When you have a guy like Hamlin who says out loud, “It needs a complete redesign,” I don’t think that he says that flippantly. I think that he means what he’s saying, that the frustration and the concern has gotten to a place where NASCAR needs to listen to these engineers on these race teams, and I think we’re at that point. When the drivers start to get really vocal and “Good Morning America” is doing stories on NASCAR safety, I think that the sanctioning body will listen.

McGee: And I think they are listening. It’s just a matter of how quickly they can get it turned around. If they could take that car with the racing that we’ve seen this season and eliminate these issues, then it’s a home run.

Smith: Home run. The competition this year has been thrilling. We’ve had record numbers of winners and it’s just been a season full of new energy and it’s been awesome to see. But this is something that’s very concerning to the competitors, and so I think NASCAR is understanding that it’s time to make some alterations.

McGee: The only thing that could possibly take away from what we both agree is one of the greatest, most competitive seasons in the history of the sport is this story right here. And so you have to fix it. You have to.

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Braves star Acuña out for season with torn ACL

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Braves star Acuña out for season with torn ACL

Atlanta Braves star outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. will miss the rest of the season after he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during Sunday’s 8-1 victory at Pittsburgh.

The reigning NL MVP led off the game with a double to right-center field off Martin Perez. With Marcell Ozuna at the plate, Acuña started toward third on a stolen base attempt and his left knee gave way. Acuña remained down for several minutes while being treated, pointing at his left leg before walking off under his own power.

The Braves’ initial diagnosis was left knee soreness. But the team announced Sunday night that an MRI showed a complete ACL tear that will require season-ending surgery.

Acuña tore his right ACL on July 20, 2021. Wearing a brace in the clubhouse after Sunday’s win, the 26-year-old outfielder said this injury felt less severe.

“(I) don’t feel that painful, any pop or anything. … Don’t think it’s that bad,” Acuña said.

Acuña said he was looking to take third when he anticipated a slow throw back to the mound from catcher Joey Bart. The toss came in harder than expected, leading to an abrupt pivot back to second with his knee twisting.

Acuña is batting .250 with four homers and 15 RBIs in 49 games. The four-time All-Star hit a career-best .337 last season with 41 homers and 106 RBIs.

Atlanta already was missing All-Star right-hander Spencer Strider, whose season ended on April 13 when he had internal brace surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. Third baseman Austin Riley is day to day with a left intercostal strain, and catcher Sean Murphy remains on the 10-day injured list with an oblique injury after he got hurt on opening day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Reds extend Dodgers’ skid to 5; Ohtani at ‘90%’

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Reds extend Dodgers' skid to 5; Ohtani at '90%'

The Los Angeles Dodgers are in the midst of their longest losing streak since 2019, but first baseman Freddie Freeman has no doubt that there’s no concern.

“It’s May, it’s baseball,” Freeman said. “Two weeks ago, we were winning every game. I don’t think anybody needs to question in our lineup. We’ll be fine.”

The Cincinnati Reds finished off a sweep of the Dodgers with a 4-1 victory Sunday, extending LA’s slide to five games — it’s longest since dropping six in a row April 8-13, 2019.

Dodgers star Shohei Ohtani went 3-for-12 in the series while dealing with a bruised right hamstring. He batted second Sunday and went 1-for-3 as the designated hitter, reaching on an infield single while scoring the Dodgers’ only run.

“It’s right around 90%,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said of Ohtani’s hamstring. “Assuming it will keep getting better, I feel confident that he can play smart and not push it. Talked to him about not trying to steal a base. Be smart. The value of having him in the lineup is everything.”

Los Angeles’ lineup has been hampered by inconsistency. The Dodgers scored six times in the series opener, and then scored two more over the next two games.They have been shut out twice this month while scoring two or fewer runs six times.

“When you’re not hitting, it certainly seems lifeless,” Roberts said. “Seems like we’re running cold. I know it’s not from care or preparation. Bottom line, it’s about results and we’re not getting them right now. They outplayed us this series and won three.”

Roberts hinted at a couple of changes to the lineup when the Dodgers begin a three-game series against the New York Mets at Citi Field.

“Some guys might be pressing a little bit,” Roberts said. “Every time I write the lineup, I feel good that we’re going to put up some runs. It’s not a big picture-type thing. It’s certainly been two weeks where it hasn’t been good.”

Jonathan India and Nick Martini each drove in two runs for the Reds, and Brent Suter, Nick Martinez, Carson Spiers and Alexis Diaz combined for a five-hitter.

Martinez (2-3) pitched 4⅓ innings of one-hit ball on a bullpen day for Cincinnati, and Díaz got two outs for his 10th save.

“It starts with our pitchers,” Reds manager David Bell said. “They’re ready to take the ball. Starting with Brent Suter, who did his job. That’s where it starts. Nick Martinez took over. Nick continues to show when he executes his pitches how good he is. To pitch so well against this team really says a lot.”

Freeman hit an RBI double in the ninth, stopping a 0-for-22 slide for the Dodgers with runners in scoring position. Freeman then advanced on defensive indifference, but Díaz struck out Teoscar Hernandez and Andy Pages swinging.

The start of the game was moved up from 1:40 p.m. EDT to 12:10 p.m. due to the threat of severe storms that arrived in the sixth inning. The teams then waited through a delay for just over an hour.

Cincinnati scored four times in the third off Yoshinobu Yamamoto (5-2). India had a bases-loaded single, and Martini’s bloop hit scored two more.

Yamamoto allowed six hits, struck out eight and walked two in five innings.

“They found a way to fight with two outs and find some outfield grass,” Roberts said. “They stayed inside the baseball. When you fight, you get those breaks sometimes. Outside of that, I thought Yoshi was fantastic. He was one hitter away from going five scoreless.”

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Dodgers: Right-hander Gavin Stone (4-2, 3.60 ERA) will oppose Mets right-hander Tylor Megill (0-2, 3.00 ERA) on Monday in the opener of a three-game series.

Reds: Left-hander Nick Lodolo (3-2, 3.34 ERA) will come off the injured list to start the series opener against the Cardinals on Monday. Lance Lynn (2-2, 3.68 ERA) starts for St. Louis.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Tigers blow 5-run lead, rally with 3-run HR in 9th

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Tigers blow 5-run lead, rally with 3-run HR in 9th

DETROIT — Matt Vierling homered twice, including a tiebreaking, three-run drive off Jordan Romano in the ninth inning that gave Detroit a wild 14-11 win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday after the Tigers wasted a five-run lead and recovered from a two-run deficit.

Vierling had four hits and tied career highs with two homers and four RBIs.

“My brother and I in the back yard, we’d always be doing situations like that,” Vierling said. “It’s kind of cool when it actually happens.”

Carson Kelly hit a three-run homer and Spencer Torkelson hit a solo shot for Detroit, which led 5-0 after three innings, 8-3 after five and 9-5 after six. The Tigers set a season high for runs and tied their high with 17 hits.

Torkelson had three hits and scored three runs.

“He’s really easy to root for,” Torkelson said of Vierling. “To see him come through, we had all the faith in the world and confidence he’d get the job done there. That’s exactly what he did.”

Toronto’s Isiah Kiner-Falefa homered in the seventh off Tyler Holton, and the Blue Jays took an 11-9 lead with a five-run eighth when Bo Bichette hit a two-run single off Jason Foley and Daulton Varsho hit a three-run homer.

Toronto manager John Schneider drew some consolation by the way his team kept fighting back.

“It’s easy to kind of quit after that and the guys did the exact opposite,” he said. “Chipped away and came back with huge hits from Bo and Varsh.”

Mark Canha tied the score with a two-run single against Yimi Garcia in the bottom half, his third hit.

Vierling, who hit a solo homer in the fifth off Zach Pop, drove a full-count slider from Romano (1-2) over the left-field wall for his first big league walk-off hit. A two-time All-Star, Romano has allowed three homers this year, half his total last season.

“I was ready for that pitch that he threw me 3-2,” Vierling said. “I was kind of looking for it 2-2, as well, but it was low and I was able to check my swing enough. The next pitch was the same pitch, just a little more up.”

Mason Englert (1-0) pitched a hitless ninth for the Tigers (26-27), who won the last three games of a four-game series against the last-place Blue Jays (23-29).

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. had his second four-hit game of the season for the Blue Jays.

Detroit starter Casey Mize gave up three runs and eight hits in 4⅓ innings. Toronto’s Yusei Kikuchi allowed five runs and eight hits in three innings. Mize and Kikuchi are 0-3 each in their six starts.

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