Joey Logano. Getty Images.
This week the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to the ISM speedway in Avondale, Arizona for their second stop on NASCAR's West Coast swing. This track breaks the sequence of high-banked cookie cutter mile and a half tracks we have seen at Atlanta and Vegas over the past couple of weeks. While by definition this track is listed as a mile and a half, it has many characteristics that are aligned with a short track. The biggest area to watch around is the front straightaway. This part of the speedway will be where a lot of the passes will be made as there is a major elevation change that goes all the way to the inside retaining wall, so look for three and four wide racing around here all throughout the day.
Last week, defending champion Joey Logano held off his teammate Brad Keselowski for his first win in 2019. The race was met with mixed reviews by the NASCAR community. Overall, it was a relatively calm race. For the first time since 2002, there were zero on-track accidents and the only cautions we saw were for the stage breaks. In the weeks building before the race, many fans were told that the racing was going to be close and tightly bunched and there was going to be three wide racing and it would be just like we see on the plate tracks at Daytona and Talladega, so when it wasn't many fans were disenfranchised with how everything went down. But when it was all said and done it wasn't a bad race, there was another near photo finish with Keselowski and Logano, and there was plenty of passing all around the race track. Above all the field was much closer than they were last year around this time. Yes. It's true that it didn't live up to the hype but overall it was a good quality race. I look forward to see them run this package at tracks like Auto Club and Indianapolis.
The driver that I have winning this week is Erik Jones. Now in his third year and a win under his belt, Erik has shown major signs that he will be a championship contender. He finished third at Daytona and then backed it up with a seventh place finish at Atlanta. Even though last week was a bit of a let down for him as he finished 13th, this week he goes to a place where he shines; in fact he has the fifth highest average finish here among all active drivers. Another facet of his success here is his ability to qualify well, he has an 8.8 average starting position and with how important qualifying has been this year, I believe that this will only help him more. Look for Jones to surprise some folks this week and claim his second career victory come Sunday.
One of the dark-horse drivers this week has to be Ryan Newman. He comes to the track where he claimed his last victory in 2017 and while a lot has changed since then including where he drives, the Rocket-man is easily one of the most experienced drivers in the field. It's no secret that it has been a dark time for Roush-Fenway racing but after Newman finished in the top 15 at Atlanta and Stenhouse Jr finished seventh last week at Vegas, it would appear that Jack Roush and his team are trending upward. When the checkered flag falls, Ryan may not win but I really believe that he will get a good finish and I look forward to seeing him wheel the Oscar Meyer Ford Mustang to a top ten.
(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).
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.