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.


 

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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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