THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Las Vegas South Point 400 preview

NASCAR arrives in Las Vegas this week. Getty Images

This weekend in Las Vegas, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series begins its first round of the playoffs. Going into this race, 16 drivers have a chance at the championship and a win here would advance them to the round of 12 and one step closer to a title. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is another one of NASCAR’s patented 1.5-mile race tracks. This will be the first time in the track's 20-year history that it will host two races in a season after NASCAR decided to revamp their schedule last season.  This track’s x-factor is its location and its climate. Built in the desert, the track’s temperature is sweltering meaning the surface is more slick. Look for drivers to be searching for grip come Sunday afternoon.

Last week at Indianapolis, Brad Keselowski won his second race in a row after passing Denny Hamlin with two laps to go, This was his second “crown jewel” victory of 2018. The victory propels Keselowski to fourth place in the standings. Erik Jones was one of the surprises of the day as he came home second. The sophomore driver will race for a championship in the playoffs for the first time in his young career after his upset victory in Daytona. After being much of a non-factor throughout the day, Jones was able to sneak his way into a runner-up finish. While he is considered a long shot, Jones should be a challenger in the next 10 weeks leading up to the championship finale at Homestead

With the playoff field set, you would think the  three obvious favorites are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr but after the last few weeks, it hasn’t been all about the “big three” we have been accustomed to seeing all season. While yes, they have each had good results in the last few races before the end of the regular season, we haven’t seen either one win since August at Michigan. Each driver has accumulated a substantial amount of points so it is safe to say that at least two of the three will advance to the championship race at Homestead but, it wouldn’t surprise me if  one doesn’t advance and at this point, Martin Truex Jr seems to be the odd man out. With his former team Furniture Row closing its doors next season it will be difficult for them to maintain the dominance they have shown over the past three seasons.

The driver that appears to be next in line to breakout is Brad Keselowski. As mentioned earlier, “Bad Brad” has won the last two consecutive races at Darlington and the Brickyard and this week he goes to a track where he has a great deal of success. He has two victories and the highest average finish here since 2016 and a win here would move him onward to the next round which is important because he will need all the help he can get going into the remaining races at  Richmond and the new Charlotte Road course configuration. If Brad and his Miller Light Penske racing team can continue their run, they will be especially hard to beat going into these next ten races.

Of this field, there have been many surprises including Aric Almirola and his consistency to run around the top ten this season and Alex Bowman and Jones making their postseason debuts. Both of these both pale in comparison to the absolute dumpster fire it has been for the legendary Jimmie Johnson. Of the 26 races ran this season Johnson only has TWO TOP FIVES! A career low. While many have suggested Johnson ride off into the South Florida sunset and call it a career after 2018 after this season’s finale in Homestead-Miami, he has been adamant that he will continue to race on into the future. Johnson has been known to come out of a slump in the final 10 races as he did in 2016 when he won his record tying seventh title but this season has been much different as he has yet to win a race. Regardless of this season, his legacy as one of the the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time is  all but certain but only time will tell if he will return to the glory days of old.

The driver that I predict will win this week is Ryan Blaney. In all of his four starts here, he has never finished outside of the top 10 and while he has only led one lap here, I think this week he has a great shot to put it together and claim his first win of 2018 and advance to the next round. This season has not been kind to one of NASCAR’s newest rising stars but he has proven that he can run up near the front and contend for wins and a victory could not come at a more important time for him. Look for this to be a popular victory if Blaney can finally close the deal and bring his No. 12 PPG Ford Fusion to victory lane come Sunday.


 

THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Ford Ecoboost 500 preview

Martin Truex will try to send his team out in style. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Sunny Homestead-Miami Florida for the final race of the 2018 season, The Ford Ecoboost 500. After 36 weeks of battle, this race decides who will represent the sport as champion. Homestead-Miami  has played host for the season finale for the last 16 seasons. This is arguably the biggest race in all of NASCAR considering what is on the line and there is no better place in the world for it to take place. This track is a mile and a half in length and is known for its 18- degree banking in the corners. Over the years, the track has produced some of the best finishes in recent memory and with everything that’s at stake this week should be an all-time classic.

Last week at Phoenix, Kyle Busch took the checkered flag to officially cement his spot in the championship four. He did so after his brother Kurt Busch was involved in a multi-car crash involving him, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. In the closing stages of the race, Hamlin entered turn four and got into the side of Kurt Busch causing both to hit the wall bouncing back into Chase Elliott.

Hamlin was criticized for his “lack of respect” for the situation that Busch and Elliott were in contending for a championship. At first glance it was easy to understand why fans were upset but upon further review of the video, it would appear that the track was not maintained properly by NASCAR’s clean up crew.  On NASCAR Race Hub Radioactive segment, Defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was quoted as saying “they didn’t clean up the bleeping track for one thing. Everyone went down there and it was like ice. They just don’t get it.” His Crew Chief Cole Pern responeded by saying “yeah they do, it creates excitement. That’s their plan.”

These are fairly serious allegations but it isn’t so farfetched seeing NASCAR has made some pretty dumb calls regarding track maintenance in the past. For example, last season at Dover, they decided to restart the race without fully cleaning the backstretch. This oversight caused Ty Dillon to spin and collect multiple cars with him in the crash. While it may not be intentional and it is definitely difficult to manage these instances but they are proof that NASCAR could do a much better job at track maintenance and cleaning up the track. Let’s hope they have learned their lesson from last week because it has cost two drivers a chance at a championship.

Of the four drivers, Joey Logano enters Homestead as the only one who has never won a title. He has however made it to the championship race three times including this year in 2018. Each attempt has ended in heartbreak whether it be dropping the car off the jack during a pit-stop in 2014, or being involved in a late race crash in 2016. This year Logano hopes that history won't repeat itself and will finally claim his first championship. If he is to win it, it will have been well deserved seeing how he has an excellent season. This year, Logano has 12 top fives, 25 top-10s and two victories including the win that got him here at Martinsville. While he has lurked in the shadows of his competition, he has consistently been in around the front all season. While Logano has a good chance to win the title, the one variable that he must be weary of are the drivers that he  has upset over the duration of the season including Martin Truex Jr and Aric Almirola. Regardless, Logano looks to have a real shot at winning his first title.

Easily, Martin Truex Jr, enters this race as the sentimental favorite to win the championship. As most fans know, Furniture Row racing will cease operations after this race. Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn have been the spark that have made this team a championship winning organization and now he has a chance to come back and send his team off with one last championship, This has been a rollercoaster type season for him though and while he has been in contention, Truex has yet to win a race since the announcement of his teams closure. In the end though, I don’t foresee this being an issue at Homestead. This is a track where Truex has struggled although as he has the lowest average finish of the group but he has shown that he can win here. Truex has a lot working against him but he still has a great shot at winning his second title.

After last week’s debacle, Kevin Harvick comes to Homestead with a chip on his shoulder. After his win was disallowed two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, he looks to come in and prove his doubters wrong by claiming his second championship. If he does pull it off, he has definitely earned it with how incredible he has ran this year. Overall He has 22 top fives and 28 top tens with an average finish of 9.0! In percentages, he has finished in the top 10 in 80 percent of the races this year. This has easily been the most dominant season of his career as he has won more races now than ever before even in his championship winning season in 2014. Come Sunday, Harvick is going to be hard to beat.

While Harvick has had the best season statistically, Kyle Busch has come pretty close to matching the success of his championship rival. This year, Busch has eight wins, twenty-one top fives and twenty-seven top tens, nearly identical to the stats that Harvick has been able to put up. After winning last week at Phoenix, Busch comes to homestead with the most momentum on his side and when you get this 18 team in a rhythm they are hard to catch. Besides no one has made it to Homestead more than Kyle Busch as he has only missed the final round one time since the sport adopted this format in 2014. Look for Busch to be around the top three for most of the day as he looks to clinch his second NASCAR Championship.

Over the past four years that we have seen this format, I think this is easily the best four drivers we have ever seen make it to Homestead. Unlike the previous years, we won’t see a driver who got on a hot streak at the end of the season like we did with Ryan Newman in 2014 or Jeff Gordon in 2015. This is the cream of the crop and that’s why I think this will be one of the most memorable championship battles of all time. I look forward to seeing who gets to hoist the trophy come sunday evening.

(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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