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).

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This week,the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for America's most famous track, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. While it is one of the oldest racetracks in the world, NASCAR has only been coming here since 1994 and is one of the newer tracks on the schedule. While NASCAR's history here may not be as prestigious as IndyCar, this is still one of NASCAR's crown jewel events and winning here is a huge accomplishment for any driver. This race will also serve as the final race of NASCAR's regular season and is the last chance for any driver on the outside of the playoff picture. Over the past couple of years, this track has sort of fallen out of favor with the fans as the racing there is much more spread out compared to the other tracks on the schedule. I think this weekend will be different as NASCAR will use its new Aero package that will tighten up the field a bit. I think that this race will surprise most fans.

Last week, Erik Jones went on to claim his second career victory after holding off his teammate Kyle Busch. The race was marred by a four hour rain delay that didn't even have the race finishing until late in the evening. Overall, the race was action packed as many drivers took their turn up front but the dominant car of the day was easily Kyle Busch. The 2015 cup champion led a race high 118 laps but after smashing into the wall with three laps to go, his chance of claiming his first Southern 500 went out the window. Incredibly, he was still able to limp home third. In his post race interview, Kyle was unhappy with the officials and their decision not to throw the caution after running into the wall. For some reason, I do not understand why Busch would want a caution considering the damage sustained would take him out of contention for a good finish but on the other side of the argument, I can see how it could be considered a safety issue. Regardless of the controversy, the win comes as a huge relief for Busch's race team as Joe Gibbs and his super-team have now had all four cars go on to win a race in 2019 and easily come into the playoffs as the team to beat.

While Jones and his team were celebrating, others drives like Jimmie Johnson were stewing in defeat as their results were not enough to get them over the cutoff line. Throughout most of the race, Johnson had a car that was capable of running in the top five and possibly could have mixed it up for the win but a late race incident took him out of contention. Overall, it was definitely a missed opportunity for the seven-time champion as he now sits 18 points below the cut-line and now Johnson is nearly in a must win situation to make the playoffs. This is uncharted waters for him as he has never missed NASCAR's version of the postseason ever since it was started back in 2004. It will be very interesting to see what tricks the 48 team can pull out of their sleeves to make the playoffs. With playoff berths clinched by drivers Ryan Blaney, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Aric Almirola the focus shifts to who will occupy the final two spots. Currently, Clint Bowyer sits 15th in points eight points ahead of both Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez who are tied for the final spots. All three of these drivers have shown speed all season and definitely make a strong case to be in the playoffs and with there only being ten winners this season, it is safe to say at least two of these drivers have a good shot of making it. If I had to say who I think these two drivers will be, I would say it would be Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman. Overall, I think both of these drivers will have good runs this week especially considering Ryan Newman has won here back in 2013, and Clint Bowyer is coming off back to back top ten finishes at Bristol and Darlington. It should be a fun battle to see who is able to punch their tickets to NASCAR's postseason.

The favorite coming into this race has to be defending winner Brad Keselowski. This season has been phenomenal for Brad and his team as they have won three races this season. Over the past two races at this track, Brad has really ramped up his results here as he finished second and first respectably. I expect him to be the car to beat as he goes for back to back victories at the brickyard.

The driver that I think will go to victory lane this week is Jimmie Johnson. Like I have mentioned many times, this season has been Johnson's most disappointing both statistically and mentally. Not only has he failed to win a race since 2017, he has struggled to even find the top five as he only has three top five finishes. There has been a certain amount of dysfunction that NASCAR fans are not accustomed to seeing from him and this team as he has now gone through two crew-chiefs since parting ways with Chad Knaus. Many wonder if these struggles have become too much for the legendary driver as some believe he may never win again but after watching how good he was last week, I believe that Johnson will not only win again but he will do it this week when he needs to the most. As I wrote earlier, Johnson will either need to run up front all day and collect a good amount of stage points or he will need a win to make NASCAR's version of the postseason and what better place to do it then Indy? Overall, there is no active driver that has more wins at this track than Johnson as has won here four times. Not many people can say that they have won here at this track four times in any form of Motorsports let alone NASCAR. This week, I predict that the stars will align for him and he will claim his 84th career victory in what could be the most important race of not only his season but of his career. Look for Johnson to prove his doubters wrong come Sunday afternoon as he gets his team back to the winner's circle.

(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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