NASCAR: Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview, predictions

Brad Keselowski is the driver to keep an eye on. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The time has come, the final race before the playoff cutoff at the world's most prestigious racetrack, Daytona International Raceway. This is truly one of the wild card races of the season and there will be some desperate drivers in the field as this is their last chance to get into the post-season. With this track being known for its thrilling three and four-wide racing, we are setting up for an all-timer come Saturday night. The cars will be modified from their usual 510 horsepower package to 450 and the "wicker bill" on the spoiler will also be removed. This is being done in an effort to slow down some of the massive runs of momentum the cars pick up and to give the drivers more reaction time to figure out how to defend their position on the track without causing a melee like we have seen so many times over the years. In the grand scheme of things, it shouldn't have too much of an effect on the finished product though, as each car still will reach speeds of 190-195 miles per hour.

Last week, Ryan Blaney went on to capture his second win of 2021. While Blaney did have a fast car for most of the day, it never really appeared that he had the car to win. He started the race from the third position but by mid-race, he seemed to be stuck at the tail end of the top ten. It wasn't until a caution with 20 laps left when his car came alive and he was able to get out in clean air and take the victory.

When the race was over, he was quoted as saying, "Michigan's pretty much a matter of running wide open and playing the air game. I hate that we have to race that way, but that's what you have to do here." This led to a debate as it usually does among fans about NASCAR's aero package. Personally, I agree with Ryan Blaney and think the drivers should be given more credence when it comes to how these cars drive and not the fans because if there is one thing we know about NASCAR fans, it's that they truly have no idea what they want. This race was a prime example of that. You have many fans on social media that talk about how they want the racing to be closer, and when it is, they talk about "artificial drama". It is very exhausting to see this debate week after week on what NASCAR should do and while yes the fans are important, they aren't the ones in the race car.

The battle for the final spot in the playoffs all hinges on Austin Dillon, anyone below him will have to win to advance. Currently, Dillon sits five points below the cutoff line behind his teammate Tyler Reddick. These two seem to have a hard time finding any momentum. Last week it seemed like Austin had a car that was capable of winning the race until he was involved in an incident at the end of stage two with Brad Keselowski. With the #3 car being out, this would have been a great opportunity for Reddick to extend his lead and make up more ground, but he also crashed trying to make a four-wide pass with fourteen laps left in the race. Both of these drivers have a fairly large gap on the cars below the cutoff line but at a track such as Daytona anything can happen. And there could be a surprise winner and with Kevin Harvick essentially locking himself in on points, these two need to really have a consistent run come Saturday. This will be one of the most intriguing storylines of the race.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Brad Keselowski. It's hard to find a better driver on superspeedways then him. When his protégée Dale Earnhardt Jr retired, many of us wondered who was the next great superspeedway racer and in the past five years it's been clear that Brad was next in line to take over. No active driver has more wins on tracks like these than he does with seven victories including a win at Talladega this year. He's also won at Daytona as well. For some reason, it seems like Brad always knows exactly what moves to make and when to make them. I don't know if I'd say he can see the air like Dale Sr did, but he can at least catch a passing glance when it comes to the draft. While there have been many triumphs for him, there has also been heartbreak as he's been involved in numerous big accidents here including the last lap crash in the 2021 Daytona 500 with his teammate Joey Logano. Many would consider this move by Longano to be the straw that broke the camel's back when it came to Keselowski staying at Penske. If Brad can stay up front he will be in a great position, it also helps tremendously that he has a satellite teammate in Matt DiBenedetto starting ahead of him, so those two can work together in the draft to get to the front. Look for Brad to try and get the ship righted for the playoffs with a victory.

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The Houston Texans have just a couple of practices before their preseason debut. Here are 11 observations from Tuesday’s workout.

1.The offense stunk on Tuesday. It was inconsistent and resembled more of last year’s disappointing performances than any other practices in this training camp.

2. Davis Mills and his receivers had a few miscommunications on Tuesday. Mills sailed a pass to nobody when he and Brandin Cooks weren’t on the same page. There were some other throws to nowhere in the day. It was something that hadn’t been present at all in training camp to this point.

3. There were a few “good coverage” notes on Tuesday. Not to say there was one specific player, but a handful of team-level efforts that led to the note.

4. It wasn’t all wrong from the offense. After a pass to nowhere Davis Mills and the offense bounced back. It was a second down during a team drill and Mills fired a pass to Chris Moore for six yards. Rex Burkhead would pick up a first down on a rush a play later. A non-positive play last year on first down doomed this team. That hopefully won’t be the case for this year’s team.

5. Chad Beebe is going into his fifth season in the NFL, his first with the Texans. The former Vikings pass catcher has flashed a few times in training camp. He has an uphill battle being new to the team but is trying to make himself a factor.

6. Phillip Dorsett had a big catch over the middle. Davis Mills stood back and delivered as the offensive line held up and Dorsett reeled it in for a huge gain. No defenders were around him. It is between Dorsett and Chris Moore for the chance to be the slot wideout opening day. With Dorsett’s return to practice, it is becoming a fun camp battle.

7.Speaking of returns to practice, Tytus Howard was back. Howard has his reps managed and after practice, offensive line coach George Warhop Howard was “getting his wind” back. When Howard was having his reps managed rookie tackle Austin Deculus played at right tackle. Deculus looks much more consistent than minicamp and OTAs.

8. Kenyon Green is still out with an injury. It is getting to a critical time where the time missed might prevent the first-rounder from starting week one. Max Scharping hasn’t looked bad in his chances with the first team. Offensive line coach George Warhop said they believe in Green and his ability and he has been in meetings to stay up to date.

9. Ka’imi Fairbairn was perfect in one of the special team periods. He drilled all five kicks, each further than the last, and was crushing the football.

10. Derek Stingley was very sticky in some early reps on Nico Collins. The third overall pick is so smooth when he is working. Later his coverage forced a throw from the offense that had no chance of being completed.

11. The play of the day was made by Derek Stingley. The offense was about five or six yards out of the end zone needing a touchdown to win. With six seconds left on the clock, any completed pass that wasn’t a touchdown was game over. Davis Mills dropped back a step and fired to Nico Collins who Stingley covered. The rookie kept the second-year player out of the end zone to earn the defense a win. This was one of the better Stingley days and he did a lot of work. At one point, it looked as though he and Rex Burkhead had some words and almost led to an offense and defense scuffle, but it stayed to just some shouting. The rookie shined today.

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