THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Hollywood Casino 400 preview

Alex Bowman needs a big effort to advance. Alex Bowman/Facebook

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the heartland in Kansas City, Kansas for the Hollywood Casino 400.

Last week, Stewart-Haas racing teammates Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer found a way to pull away from the pack and get a one-two finish as Almirola went to victory lane for the first time since July of 2014 at Daytona, Bowyer finished second.  This victory is huge for Almirola. Not only does he solidify himself as a championship contender, it is also very special due to all of the adversity he has had to face over the past year. Last year at Kansas Motor Speedway of all places, Almirola suffered a back injury which took him out of commission for a month. It was good to see him get redemption and move on after the hard times.

Entering this race, two drivers have already clinched a spot to the next round. Those drivers are Chase Elliott and  Almirola. While not exactly the drivers the casual fans would expect, both drivers are enjoying their best seasons as Almirola has his most top 10s in a season in his career and Elliott was able to claim his first win in his career this year at Watkins Glen followed by a victory at Dover two weeks ago.

The four drivers that are below the cutoff line are Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman. For the two Penske teammates of Keselowski and Blaney they face the easiest path to unseed Martin Truex and Clint Bowyer. While they enter Kansas 18 points out, if both of these drivers can rack up stage points they very well can find themselves in prime position to get back into the round of eight. The next two drivers are Larson and Bowman. These two are in a must-win situation. Bowman and Larson are facing an insurmountable deficit and the only way to advance is to win Kansas. It should be interesting to watch as these two try and claw their way back into the championship picture.

One of The biggest surprises of this round has been the struggles of Martin Truex Jr. After an abysmal 23rd place finish at Talladega and a mediocre 15th-place finish at Dover, Truex comes into Kansas only eight points above the cutoff. While the situation isn’t exactly dire for the defending champ, he still needs to have at least a top 10 finish to securely solidify his spot in the round of eight. He should be a force to be reckoned with come Sunday.

The driver that I have going to victory lane is Larson. Overall, 2018 has been a huge letdown for this team and while they had chances to win races, it just hasn’t seemed to be in the cards for him but this week, I think they finally break through. I know that I have been saying that for quite some time this season but Kansas Motor Speedway is one of the tracks he has been able to really excel at - he just hasn’t seemed to have the results to back up how great he has run here and tracks like it. Even though his average finish here has not been that great, over the years, he has always been in contention for a win. Like I wrote earlier, Larson’s back is very much against the wall when it comes to making the next round, not only is he facing a 36-point deficit but he also faces a 10 point deduction after using metal tabs for damage repair, which is illegal as you can only use metal fasteners or duct tape to repair damage. While the team is appealing, this does not change the situation for him and I think this week he will defy the odds and clinch a spot in the round of eight and maybe this victory can be the catalyst for Larson to get back into championship contetinton.

This should be a great race come Sunday as most cutoff races in this playoff format have been awesome to watch and this week should be no different. I can’t wait to see who moves on as we get closer and closer to crowning a champion in november.

(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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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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