THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Bojangles Southern 500 preview

Martin Truex's future is up in the air. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

After a one week vacation, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series is back! This weekend, we head to Darlington Raceway in Darlington South Carolina for the annual Southern 500. This race is a major part of NASCAR’s history. Beginning in 1950, every Labor Day weekend, NASCAR would come to Darlington raceway for the Southern 500. Even though in 2004 the Southern 500 moniker and Labor Day date was dropped, both returned in 2015.

With the tradition seemingly back, NASCAR implemented a “throwback” theme. While it isn’t mandatory, most teams roll out a throwback paint scheme for a car from years past to honor the race track’s tradition. This theme makes it one of the most popular races of the season.  

Nicknamed “ The track too tough to tame,” Darlington is one of the oldest speedways on the circuit as it was built all the way back in 1949. One of it’s most unique features is its “egg shaped” layout. Back in 1948, when track designer Harold Brasington built it, he had to make the third and fourth turns more narrow in order not to intrude on a neighboring farmers Minnow Pond. This compromise by the track designer made the banking uneven, making it one of the hardest tracks in America to navigate. When it comes to Darlington, one of the biggest variables of this track is tire wear. Because of its unorthodox layout, this track is extremely tough on tires. Last season, Martin Truex Jr appeared to be on his way to victory until a flat tire with three laps remaining ended his chances and gave the victory to Denny Hamlin. Look for this to be a major factor come sunday.

It would appear that NASCAR “Silly Season” is in full swing. This is the part of the year where drivers across all three series announce where they will be racing next season. As mentioned last week, the first major domino to fall was 2004 champion Kurt Busch. While it has not been confirmed, it would appear that Busch is going to drive for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. This move appeared to open the flood gates as it was announced his spot at Stewart Haas racing was offered to other drivers including defending champion Martin Truex Jr. and the soon to be retiring Kasey Kahne. Not only was Busch rumored to leave but it was reported that Furniture Row racing team owner Barney Visser might be looking to sell the team if more sponsorship couldn’t become available. This led many to believe that Allegiant Airline CEO  Maurice Gallagher would purchase the team, re-sign Martin Truex Jr and promote his son Spencer to the cup series after serving his suspension for using a banned substance.

According to popular racing journalist Adam Stern, those talks “collapsed” leaving the status of the team and Truex Jr unknown. Personally, I believe that Truex is a championship caliber driver who would have no problem finding another ride next season, but it would truly be a shame to see this team not return next season. Let's hope as fans that they can find the sponsorship needed to continue in 2018 and into the future.

The odds-on favorite going into this week is last year’s winner Denny Hamlin. Last season, Hamlin made one of the best drives in recent memory after he overcame a two lap deficit to win. This is a track that Hamlin has always shined at; over the course of his 12 starts here, Hamlin has two wins, seven top fives and 10 top tens. Maybe this week will be the race Hamlin finally breaks through and gets that elusive first win of the season. He should be hard to beat when the green flag drops.  

The driver I have winning this week is Kyle Larson. Coming into this week, Larson cemented his spot in the “playoffs” by obtaining enough points during the season and while he hasn’t won a race this year he goes to another track that suits his driving style perfectly. He thrives when he drives on the high side up near the wall and at Darlington the prefered line is exactly where Larson runs every week, not to mention he also has the third highest average finish here since 2016. While this season hasn’t been terrible for him, not winning a race has been tough. Larson has struggled to adapt to the Camaro but is talented enough to be in contention week in and week out and this week I think he finally breaks through and claims his sixth career win at Darlington.

(All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Refrence.com the best website for all NASCAR stats).

 

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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