THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR heads for the Valley of the sun in Phoenix

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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Rockets get another much-needed win. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets went on a redemption tour by beating the Detroit Pistons and Dallas Mavericks. But the most pivotal win was against the Mavericks as the Rockets finally showed their true potential. John Wall finally made his return from his injury hiatus and played with a lot of energy. DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Gordon combined for 61 points. It was great to see Stephan Silas crack a smile as he was able to beat his former team.

The Rockets clearly missed Wall during his eight-game absense. This season, the Rockets are a .500 team with Wall on the court. Wall is the Rockets' floor general that leads, constructs, and also pushes his teammates to become better.

Wall only played 21 minutes in the 133-108 win over the Mavericks but still had eight assists. Even though Wall only had 7 points, his presence was still felt by finding his teammates for open looks beyond the perimeter. Wall made sure Cousins and Gordon got a plethora of touches. He called multiple actions, so they got open looks from three, which was mainly Gordon. Gordon and Cousins' struggles have been similar but with Wall on the court, they were successful against the Mavericks. According to NBA Stats, Wall posted a 111 offensive rating with the starters versus the Mavericks, which included Gordon and Cousins.

"He's the engine to this team. He gets everybody going. He makes the game easy," Cousins told a reporter after the game. "The pressure that he constantly puts on the defense is a tough thing to deal with."

Gordon has struggled all season long with three-point shooting and relied on his slashing abilities. Saturday night, Gordon made six three pointers against the Mavericks, which was 66 percent from beyond the perimeter. Gordon increased his three-point percentage from 31 percent to 34.5 percent after Saturday night's game. Gordon's 33 points came from being able to attack the entire Mavericks' defense. Willy Cauley-Stein didn't stand a chance against Gordon as he was burned multiple times. Gordon's been a lifesaver for the Rockets in the last two games, and hopefully he maintains his play.

Cousins played fantastic against the Mavericks scoring 28 points and grabbing 17 rebounds. This is Cousins' first double-double with the Rockets this season. Cousins became the vintage player from the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings. It was extremely fun watching Cousins push the ball up the court and aggressively snatch rebounds. Boogie shot 50 percent from behind the arc by making four three-pointers. He was dominant inside the paint as Cousins went 7/8 from the restricted area versus the Mavericks. This was the game Cousins needed after having a poor performance against the Pistons Friday night.

"It was really, really good. He did it all. He's a physical presence on both ends of the floor," as Silas said on Cousins' performance.

David Nwaba and Mason Jones were big factors off the Rockets' bench by having a combined total of 34 points together. Nwaba has been great in transition for the Rockets the entire season. Keep in mind that Nwaba is returning from an Achilles injury he suffered with his former team, the Brooklyn Nets. Nwaba has became a great defender, slasher, and is averaging a career-high nine points per game with the Rockets. He finished with 18 points on Saturday night versus the Mavericks.

Mason Jones has become a fan favorite of the Rockets because of his confidence. Silas is loving the usage of Jones off the bench but wants to find more minutes for him. Jones had a breakout performance versus the San Antonio Spurs with 24 points off 66 percent shooting from the field. He continues to get better with his reads from the point guard position. Jones' knowledge of running the offense has helped his efficiency on the court. He is never afraid to take clutch shots in pivotal moments of the game.

"To have a young kid who can come in and not be afraid of the moment, that's big. That's a tough position to be in as an undrafted rookie. I trust him. It's a good problem to have," Silas mentioned after the game. "He's showing me he's ready. He's a confident kid, and he should be. That's why he's good. He's not afraid of the moment, at all. He can get us organized, run plays, and score the basketball."

Hopefully, the Rockets can sustain their level of play when Victor Oladipo returns against the Washington Wizards, Tuesday. It will be interesting to watch Oladipo and Wall play in the same backcourt.

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