THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview

Daytona was exciting in February. The night race this weekend should be as well. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This Saturday, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of Daytona for the annual Coke Zero Sugar 400. This race is one of the most prestigious races on the schedule and many fans of the sport consider it to be one of the crown jewels of the season.

The track is easily one of the most famous in all of the world  due to its three and four wide racing and its unpredictability. You never know what can happen when NASCAR comes here; in fact this track has given us some of the biggest upsets in the sports history, like when Derrike Cope passed Dale Earnhardt for the victory in the 1990 Daytona 500 or when Jimmy Spencer outran Ernie Irvan for his first victory in 1994. At Daytona the only thing to expect is the unexpected and this week should be no different.

Last week, Kyle Larson and Kyle Busch had one of the most memorable battles in NASCAR History. On the final lap, Larson attempted to pass Busch in the second corner but after he failed to complete the pass, he made contact with Busch. After this Busch brushed the outside retaining wall giving Larson the lead temporarily but in turn three, Busch was able to get to the back bumper of Larson and pushed him aside as he captured his fifth victory of 2018.

While Larson was not able to hold him off, he did managed to recover and finish second. All day the racing we saw was excellent. There were 24 lead changes and lots of storylines all throughout the day such as the lapped traffic, the sweltering heat that hit the Chicagoland area and of course loose wheels.  As much grief as NASCAR fans give Brian France and the powers that be, this time they got it right.

The biggest disappointment of the race had to be Aric Almirola. Early on in the race, it appeared as if he had the car to beat. He went on to win the first stage and lead more laps than anyone with 70. All the stars seemed to be aligning for him but on lap 142, a loose wheel set him back a lap. While it was a big blow to his chances he still had plenty of time to make up for it. By the final stage, he had steadily clawed his way back into the top ten but in the closing stages, due to ANOTHER loose wheel Almirola was relegated to a dismal 25th place finish. Regardless of the finish, he went out and proved that his success this year was no fluke and looks to be in prime performance to do what his predecessor Danica Patrick couldn't do and  win a race this year. Look to hear about him later this season and in this article.

Alex Bowman was another driver who deserves a shoutout. He continues to exceed expectations as he went on to score his sixth top 10 of 2018 last sunday. When it was announced last year that Bowman would take over for Dale Earnhardt Jr, there was an enormous amount of pressure that came with it and he has gone out and done exactly what he is supposed to do and more. He currently sits 16th in the “playoff” points standings and continues to improve week by week. Look for Bowman to blossom into a great race car driver in the next year or so.

The favorite going into this race is once again Brad Keselowski. As I have written before, Brad is always hard to beat when there is a restrictor plate race. Some would even say he has picked up where his former mentor Dale Earnhardt, Jr left off. At both Talladega and Daytona, he has a combined total of six victories - the most amongst all active drivers. He was also third quickest in practice on Thursday and if that’s any indication as to how he will run, look for Keselowski to be one of the top contenders in the race on Saturday.

The driver that I have winning is Almirola. Over the course of his career at Daytona, Almirola has experienced both the highest of  highs and the lowest of lows. He was able to score his first and only victory here in 2014 after the race ended prematurely due to rain and was also  on his way to a victory in this year’s Daytona 500 before being turned head on into the wall by Austin Dillon on the final lap. He continued to run well on Thursday as he was second quickest in practice behind his teammate Clint Bowyer. Look for Almirola to finish what he started in February in the 500 and take the checkered flag on Saturday.

My sleeper pick for this weekend is Michael McDowell. Coming into this race, McDowell is listed at 100/1 odds to win and while he may not win the race this week, I think that there is a good chance that he is able to finish in the top 10. Not only was he 12th quickest in practice on Thursday but during the last two times that he has raced here, he has finished fourth and ninth. I can see him getting his best finish this week like he did last year because for one, it’s Daytona and anything can happen here and also because he is one of the more underrated restrictor plate drivers. If he and his teammate David Regan can work together to get to the front, it is very possible that we can see the Front Row Racing team get their first victory since 2013 and McDowell get the first win of his career. Look for McDowell in the number 34 K-Love Ford to have a shot at going to victory lane.

(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)

 

 

Joey Logano. Getty Images.


This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for ISM Raceway for the ISM 400 in Phoenix, Arizona. This is NASCAR's semi-final race before the championship race at Homestead. Many would consider this one of the most important races of the season considering it decides who will get to race for a championship. This track is a mile and a half oval that races like a short track. Last season, this track was reconfigured and completely changed the landscape. The Finish line was moved all the way to the front stretch and both the corners were inverted. This should be interesting should we see someone try to make a last second pass now that they have more time to pull it off.

Last week, Kevin Harvick went on to win his fourth race of the season after passing his teammate Aric Almirola. This race was a wreckfest, there were plenty of big names to crash including championship favorites Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. During the weekend, Texas Motor Speedway track officials added a tire compound to try and add more grip to the race track. This did not sit well with the cars as we saw many just spin out by themselves. The trouble area seemed to be turns three and four as that was where the majority of the wrecks were. Many fans were not happy with the product on the track but if it did do one thing - it allowed for some newer drivers to run up front such as Daniel Suarez and Willam Byron. All together though, the cream rose to the top and Kevin Harvick still had a fairly dominant race as he led 119 laps before winning and advancing to the championship race at Homestead.

As we draw closer to Homestead, many wonder what has been going on with Kyle Busch. As many know, it has been June since the 2015 NASCAR Champion has won a race and since then he has just kind of been around. He has had many moments to forget during this time such as when his engine blew at the Charlotte oval or when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas but because of the massive amount of points he has gained all throughout the season, he has been able to stay in the top four. Regardless of where he is in points, it is clear that he is in a slump and this team is doing everything they can to get him out of it as we get closer and closer to Homestead next week. We will see how he responds this week at the track he has won the last two times they have come here.

The championship picture definitely looks pretty much the same as it has been over the past two seasons as Martin Truex, Harvick, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano make up the top four spots. While Truex and Harvick are locked in with victories at Martinsville and Texas, the focus shifts to third and fourth as both Busch and Logano hold firm. After a disastrous weekend at Texas, Denny Hamlin finds himself 20 points out of the top four. While 20 points may seem like a lot to make up, it is actually fairly manageable. Should he go on to win both stages and Logano not finish top 10, he would make up the difference and move into a tie with Logano for the fourth spot. He could also finish in the top 10 in those stages as well and make a big dent in the points should Logano run into trouble but that will be tough considering how good he runs on a weekly basis. The drivers behind Hamlin are Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. While Elliott crashed in the early stages and was never really a factor, Kyle Larson on the other hand looked like he had a car that was capable of contending for the victory. On lap 241, Larson entered pit-lane for his pit-stop and everything went off without a hitch until Bubba Wallace spun out in turn two catching Larson on the tail end of the lead lap eliminating any opportunity for a win. This caution led many to speculate that Wallace spun himself out on purpose to get a caution and not go a lap down but this has not been proven as Wallace had a flat tire before the spin. Out of the three, the driver that came out looking the best was Blaney. By no means was it the day Blaney and his Penske team would have liked to have had but overall the No. 12 had a pretty respectable race. Throughout the day, Blaney's car was not handling well at all but this team battled back and went on to a top 10 finish. It will be interesting to see how he will respond at Phoenix this week.

The driver that I predict will win this week is Denny Hamlin. As I mentioned earlier in this article, Denny has a steep path to climb to get back into the final four and a win is the only guarantee he can race for a championship. Overall, this has not been a track that he has been able to put up the best numbers but I think with the added pressure looming, this should be the car to beat. It will be interesting to see what car owner Joe Gibbs does to try and get Hamlin back into the top four considering his teammate Kyle Busch is one of the two standing in his way. Still I look for the #11 Fedex Toyota Camry to go to Victory lane and get back in the championship hunt.

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





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