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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It is the end of an era this week at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series ends it season here for the final time. It was announced earlier this year in 2020 that NASCAR would conclude its season at Phoenix ending a 17-year tradition. While this track will still have a race here next season, it will be very weird to see champions week in Phoenix as opposed to the sunny beaches of Miami. This track has provided some of the most thrilling finishes in the past including the 2005 Ford 400 when Greg Biffle and Mark Martin finished side by side or of course in 2011 when Tony Stewart came back from multiple laps down to beat Carl Edwards for the championship. While the track will remain on the schedule next year, it simply won't be the same considering the circumstances. Not only is this track a fan favorite but also a favorite among drivers as well. I hope that NASCAR can reconsider to move this race back when they completely overhaul the schedule again in 2021.

Last week, Denny Hamlin went on to claim 37th career victory after annihilating the competition. With this victory, Hamlin will race for a chance to claim his first championship. This was a relatively calm race where there wasn't a lot going on. Passing was scarce throughout the race as it has been on a lot of these types of race tracks. Overall, the race was a pretty massive disappointment. Many fans were upset that this would be the track that would move to the season finale next season after what we saw on Sunday. While I understand their frustration, once again this goes back to how massive these spoilers are on this car and what a huge amount of drag they provide on smaller tracks like this one, if they can go to a smaller spoiler I think this problem should be eliminated. Let's hope that is the plan going forward next season and NASCAR's higher ups will listen to their drivers for once.

Another major headline this week was the announcement that next season Daniel Suarez will not return to the #41 Ford Mustang for Stewart-Haas Racing. As many would expect the driver that moves up to replace him is Cole Custer. This comes as a sort of a surprise considering there was news that the team was working with Suarez and his people on an extension. According to Adam Stern, after Suarez's sponsor Arris modems was purchased by a new company this postponed contract negotiations with the team and they simply ran out of patience. This is extremely unfortunate for Suarez. While many people were critical of him not being able to claim his first win, Suarez was having a pretty solid season. While I am happy to see Custer get his chance, I hope Daniel can find a competitive ride in 2020.

As I wrote earlier, this race will decide the champion. The four drivers that have made it are Martin Truex Jr, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Hamlin. These four drivers easily have a great case on why they have made it this far. The four have combined for 21 wins so it's safe to say these are the best four drivers in NASCAR right now. Of the four the favorite going into this race is Hamlin. Throughout his career, Hamlin has won everything there is to win but a championship. He has come painfully close so many times, including in 2010 when he spun out early at Homestead or in 2014 when he finished seventh behind Ryan Newman and Kevin Harvick. Many believe that this is Denny Hamlin's year and they have great reason for thinking so. He has won here twice back in 2009 and 2013 so he should be a great threat to take victory. One of the unsung heroes when it comes to Hamlin's success has been crew-chief Chris Gabehart. Not only has he has done an excellent job at making this car fast, he has also done a good job at keeping his driver from getting too riled up; at Martinsville he was able to restrain Hamlin from going and knocking Joey Logano's lights out so he has done a great job of that as well. Look for Hamlin to be fast come Sunday.

While he isn't exactly the favorite, Kevin Harvick definitely isn't one to sleep on when it comes to these big races. When this format was first implemented in 2014, Harvick was its first champion. While he hasn't been able to follow up with a championship since, he has still been around the top four as he has made it to the championship race every year but 2016. He has been the definition of consistency and will definitely be up front. Throughout the season, Harvick has been kind of under the radar as he didn't win his first race till New Hampshire in July. He has really come to life since then by winning three races including the one that locked him into Homestead at Texas. Look for the #4 Mustang to be a contender.

It has been quite the season for Kyle Busch. In the regular season, he was able to claim four victories at tracks like Poccono and California. The second half of the season has been a different story. Since then he has yet to find victory lane and has had numerous instances of bad results including blowing an engine at Indy and voluntarily parking his car at the Charlotte Roval after his car was damaged from an earlier accident. Regardless of his troubles, Busch has been able to collect enough stage points over the races preceding the playoffs and find himself right back in the championship race. While any other time I would like his chances, I believe that right now his heart seems to be somewhere else but I could very well be wrong. Regardless Busch will definitely make this race very interesting.

The driver I have winning the title this year is Martin Truex Jr. As we all know, Truex has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where he is. Last season, after he finally seemed to find some stability and a championship, the ground seemed to be pulled underneath him as it was announced late last year that Truex's team Furniture Row would cease operations. While most pretty much nkew Truex would move to Joe Gibbs racing, this was just another obstacle for the vetran driver. When moving on to Joe Gibbs, Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn would pick up almost right where they left off and go on to win seven races and breeze a spot in the championship race at Homestead. This week, I think that Truex will cap off an incredible season with another win and a second championship and here is why I think so, of all drivers nobody has finished better than Truex. He currently enters this race with a 1.50 average finish since 2017. The man has been the closest thing to automatic here and this week should be no different. Look for Martin Truex Jr. to take the checkered flag and claim his second championship.

(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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