THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR kicks off the playoffs at Las Vegas

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This week, NASCAR heads for Sin City in Las Vegas for the South Point 400. This is the opening round of NASCAR's version of the playoffs. Sixteen drivers will come to Vegas with a chance to move on and continue their path to a championship. Located just outside Downtown, This track is a mile and a half oval that includes twenty degrees in banking, usually with the Las Vegas heat, the track's surface becomes much more slick. This caused many tire issues last season that took out many contenders including Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott. With temps as high as 100 degrees on Sunday, this should be a factor to watch for.

Last week, Kevin Harvick put a beat-down on the field to go on and win his second Brickyard 400 and his third win of the season. Harvick led a race high 118 laps and was never really challenged until the closing stages after a battle with Joey Logano on a restart in the final few laps. The race was marred by many spectacular crashes including Brad Keselowski and Erik Jones as Brad hit a tire barrier at over 170 miles per hour causing the car to come to a dead-stop instantly. Luckily, no one involved was injured. Overall, many of the contenders were caught up in accidents including teammates Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch. When the smoke cleared, there were also some drivers who had great results including Darrell Wallace Jr who came home third. This was Bubba's best finish since last year's Daytona 500. While many will attribute attrition to why he ran so well it is important to note that he ran around the top 10 for much of the race.

For much of the season, NASCAR's greatest driver Jimmie Johnson has been in the spotlight but for all the wrong reasons and unfortunately this continued at Indy after he was eliminated from playoff contention when he was swept up in a multi car wreck on lap 108. This ends a 14 year streak of Johnson making NASCAR's postseason. While 2019 has been a dreadful year for him, Johnson has been adamant that he crew-chief Cliff Daniels are not done and will be much better come next season. If I could compare this to any other major sport, I would say it is close to what happened with LeBron James missing the playoffs this season with the Lakers. For both athletes, while things may be hard now I think they will be better next season as they both make moves to improve their teams. It will be interesting to watch seven time champion try and play spoiler to help his teammates Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and William Byron compete for a championship.

The NASCAR world was met with some good news this week as well as it was announced that fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto will drive for the Wood Brothers in 2020 in the #21 Menards Ford Mustang, the ride will include resources from Penske racing. The move was met with much surprise as it was announced Tuesday on the Wood Brothers Twitter page. The team's current driver, Paul Menard announced his retirement at the end of the 2019 season. While he won't be racing, Menard and his sponsor of the same name will remain with the team as Paul was gracious enough to suggest they hire DiBenedetto after he had many great results this season driving for Bob Leavine. Even though he will not return to full-time racing in NASCAR, he will continue to race on a part time basis more than likely for Penske racing's Xfinity team. In the grand scheme of things, many people have criticized Paul for his avenue into the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, the one thing people can't say is he and his family haven't done a lot for the sport. While many sponsors have left, Menard and his bright yellow paint scheme have always been around to keep a lot of these competitive teams going, I have to thank Paul for everything he has done for this sport and while his career wasn't perfect he wasn't such a bad race car driver either, he will always be remembered for his victory in the 2011 Brickyard 400 (ironically enough) and qualifying for the chase back in 2014. He will be missed come Sundays on the track

The driver that I have winning this week is Martin Truex Jr. This season, Truex has been fast at times but surprisingly he has kind of flown under the radar when compared to his teammates. While he still has four wins, he's been in a bit of a slump over the past two weeks. At both Indy and Bristol, he has finished 15th and 27th. The results have kind of taken the radar off the 2017 champion but I think this race is where he gets back into the swing of things. Over the last couple races here, Truex has the second highest average finish has led 23 percent of the laps completed. Come Sunday when the green flag drops, Truex and his Camry should be hard to beat.

(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).

The Left Turn

NASCAR is back for the 2020 Daytona 500

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After three months of waiting, the time has finally come for the great american race, the Daytona 500. This will be the 61st running of NASCAR's crown jewel and while there were many changes to the landscape of the sport in the off-season, the slate is now cleaned for each driver.

This will be the final Daytona 500 for the current car they are running as next season they will switch to the "next gen" model which will be VASTLY different than the car we will be seeing on Sunday. This is important because now teams will be able to maximize the current cars they have now before they become obsolete in 2021. Many team owners have done a good job of taking advantage of this including team JTG Daugherty Racing as they were able to reach a deal with Hendrick Motorsports allowing them more resources that they didn't have last year. These include pit crew support and engines as well. The team has really reaped the benefits of this as their new driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr went on to claim the pole on Sunday.

We will see if this will improve parity and if we will see any new winners in 2020.

Another major storyline coming into this new season is the rookie class. Over the last couple of years, NASCAR's rookie class has not been as strong as fans would like it to be, but this year is a completely different story. Drivers Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick have all been promoted to the cup series in 2020. This has been long overdue as they have all shown excellent promise by outrunning multiple Cup racing stars who frequently race in the Xfinity series. While Reddick is the only one of the three to win a championship, they have all won a combined 34 races over the last three years.

Tyler Reddick will move to the #8 Caterpillar Chevy for Richard Childress racing 2020 replacing Daniel Hemric. Many fans believe that adding the young driver will revitalize the slumping team as he finished ninth last year in his second Cup Series start at Kansas. Reddick is easily the most accomplished as he has won back to back NASCAR Xfinity Championships. Overall, if he can translate his success to the Cup series he will for sure be one to watch this year.

California native Cole Custer will be driving the #41 Haas Automation Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas racing as he will be replacing Daniel Suarez. This comes as no surprise considering his connections to the race team as his Dad, Joe Custer is the team president. While many people have been quick to bring this up, it doesn't take away from the immense talent this young man has. Last season, Cole won seven races and was very close to claiming the championship after a fierce battle with Reddick at Homestead. Overall, I also believe that Cole will be going into one of the better situations as he will be driving in championship winning equipment as well. I look for Custer to really make a splash this year.

While both of these drivers are extremely talented, I believe that Christopher Bell is the best of the three and will win rookie of the year. The Norman, Oklahoma phenom will be driving the #95 Toyota Camry for Bob Leavine and the Leavine Family Racing team. Unlike the other two, Bell has yet to make a Cup Series start but don't let that fool you, no one could be more prepared for the big time than this young man. Overall, I believe that he is the most polished prospect that the sport has seen since Tony Stewart considering both their backgrounds in Dirt Racing. This could explain why Joe Gibbs and his team has been so instrumental in moving Christopher's career forward considering Stewart also drove for him from 1999 to the end of 2008 when he would form his own team the next season. I think Coach Gibbs sees a lot in this young man and that's why he is spending a lot of money and resources on a partnership with Leavine Family Racing. Look for Bell to be contending for wins and championships for decades to come.

While one of those three drivers are easily the favorites to take Rookie Of The Year, another driver who is finally getting his shot at the highest level is John-Hunter Nemechek. Son of NASCAR vetran Joe Nemechek, racing has been in this young man's blood since even before he was even born, you had to figure that this young man was destined to be where he is today. While he isn't driving for a big money team in front row racing, he has been rather impressive. Last year at Texas he was in the top twenty to top fifteen throughout the day. If the young man can keep this up his name could come up for a promotion to another team. Look for Nemechek to surprise some folks this year.

Aside from this year's stacked rookie class, there will also be plenty of new faces in new places. One of the biggest announcements this year was Ricky Stenhouse Jr and Chris Buescher switching rides at Roush Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing. This came as a big surprise last season as Stenhouse had re-signed with Roush to remain in the #17 Fastenal Ford but after he struggled for most of the season, the hall of fame car owner decided to go in a different direction so they brought in their former developmental driver Chris Buescher. To counter this move, car owners Tad and Jodi Geschickter decided to bring in Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Another big move this year was Matt DiBenedetto moving to the Wood brothers to replace the retiring Paul Menard in the legendary #21 Ford Mustang. This was a popular move among NASCAR fans as he will continue to try and move his budding career forward. It will be interesting to see how these drivers will do at their new teams.

While there were many changes easily the biggest storyline this year is Jimmie Johnson and his announcement that 2020 will be his final season in NASCAR before retiring. Over the course of his 18-year career, it's hard to find anyone with a better resume. He has 83 wins and most importantly seven championships. He has experienced his fair share of success here at Daytona as well as he has won the 500 twice back in 2006 and 2013. While during his prime, Jimmie wasn't always the most popular one thing remains, Jimmie was the best to ever do it. In his final Daytona 500, Jimmie is who I am picking to win. Over the course of speedweeks Jimmie has been pretty quick as he posted speeds in the top four in both rounds one and two. Of all the drivers in the field, Johnson easily is the most experienced and that should definitely help him in the long run. Look for Jimmie Johnson to go out on top in his final daytona 500.

One darkhorse driver to watch out for is Ricky Stenhouse Jr. As I mentioned earlier, Ricky is having a week to remember as he went on to claim his third career pole on Sunday and was a lap away from winning one of winning one of the Duel qualifying races as well. I look for him to have a good race and if he can keep up his momentum a good season as well. It will be fun to watch as he tries to capture his first Daytona 500 victory from the front row on sunday.

(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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