NASCAR at Daytona: Coke Zero Sugar 400 preview, picks

Kyle Larson got a big victory last week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series head for the sandy shores of Daytona Beach, Florida for the Coke Zero Sugar 400. This is the final race of the regular season, as there are now two spots available to race for a championship in the playoffs. Daytona is the most prestigious racetrack on the NASCAR schedule, winning here would be a huge accomplishment for any driver. The track is a two mile superspeedway so here anything goes. As we all know, avoiding the big one will be the primary goal of each driver if they want a shot at winning. There is a chance of rain in the forecast this weekend, so we could very well see them race on Sunday.

Last week, Kyle Larson broke out of his slump by capturing his second win of the season at Watkins Glen. On the final restart, Larson drove into turn one as deep as he could and moved his teammate Chase Elliott aside. This was controversial, as Elliott was seen venting to car-owners Rick Hendrick and Jeff Gordon. The team would hold an emergency meeting the next day to hash it out, and everything seems to be back in order at Hendrick Motorsports.

On Wednesday, Kurt Busch announced that while he may return this season, that he will not race for a championship in the playoffs. This has been tough to hear considering Busch was having a pretty good season with a victory. Over the course of the year, Kurt took some hard hits, including a head on crash at the LA Coliseum. There had already been plenty of questions as to if Kurt will return for next season, and unfortunately we might have our answer. It has been quite a career for the 2004 Cup Series champion, let’s hope Kurt is able to come a decision on his terms. Because Kurt is out, this means there are now two spots available in the playoffs. This definitely makes an easier path for Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr to get in on points, but if there is a new winner, one of them will be the odd man out.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Austin Cindric. While it’s difficult to predict who usually wins these types of races, taking the guy who won here last would be a good bet. Cindric has a knack for this kind of racing, as he also has the highest average finish among all active drivers on superspeedways. Team Penske has sort of become the team to beat on these superspeedway type tracks, and I don’t see that changing now. It is important to note that Cindric is locked into the playoffs so his motivation to win this weekend isn’t as high as it was back in February, but if he’s in the picture, I believe that he will have the best chance at taking victory.

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It more of the same from the Houston Texans. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images.

Sunday afternoon provided a high-res snapshot of the state of Houston sports. The Astros, already assured of the best record in the American League, played a game they didn’t need to win. The Astros won, ho-hum, their 104th win of the season.

Meanwhile, eight miles away, the Texans, mired in last place with fan support dwindling, played a game they really needed to win. The Texans lost 34-24 to the Los Angeles Chargers in front of (giggle) 69,071 fans at NRG Stadium. The Texans really ought to stop saying the stands are packed. Every time a team punts, and cameras follow the ball skyward, there are thousands of empty seats on display. I know the NFL methodology for determining attendance, (total tickets sold, no-shows don’t count) but it just looks silly when the Texans announce 69,000 fans.

The Texans came close as usual before sputtering to another defeat. The Texans now stand at 0-3-1, the only winless team in the NFL. It’s the second time in three years they’ve started a season without a victory after four games. It’s telling to note that not one of the Texans opponents has a winning record for 2022.

In other words, the Texans have played four games they shoulda/coulda won. Shouda against the Colts, Broncos and Bears, and coulda against the Chargers.

Should/coulda four wins. Instead, none.

That’s the Texans. They’re in every game but can’t close the deal. Yeah, yeah, on Monday we hear, “the Texans are playing hard for coach Lovie Smith” and “they’re competitive” and “they’re a young team.” These are NFL equivalents of a participation trophy.

Sunday’s loss to the Chargers at NRG Stadium was straight out of the Texans playbook. Fall behind, make it interesting, lose. The Texans stuck to their script, timid play calling, momentum-crushing penalties (nine for 67 yards), self-inflicted drops, lackluster quarterbacking and Rex Burkhead on the field for crunch time. After one play where a Texan player was called for holding, the announcer said, “and he did a poor job of holding.”

Statuesque quarterback David Mills keeps saying “we’re in a good spot” and “we’re improving.” Statuesque as in he doesn’t move – or barely moves to avoid sacks. Sunday saw his first touchdown pass to a wide receiver. He’s now thrown four interceptions in the past two games. Let’s go to the tote board: 5 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 4 fumbles, 11 sacks, qbr rating 28.5 – good for 28th in the league.

A bright spot, sort of. This was the first week the Texans didn’t cover the spread. They’re now 1-2-1 against Vegas oddsmakers, meaning you’ve won money if you took the Texans all four weeks. They head to Jacksonville next as early 6.5-point underdogs.

Meanwhile, Alabama’s brilliant quarterback Bryce Young, who will be available for the Texans when they draft first in 2023 (as Paul Heyman says, that’s not a prediction, that’s a spoiler), suffered a shoulder injury last Saturday. The Texans need to take out a Lloyds of London insurance policy on Young.

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