THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 preview: Blaney may be poised for victory

Ryan Blaney could finish first this week. Ryanblaney.com

After a one-week hiatus for Easter, The Monster Energy Cup Series makes its return at Texas Motor Speedway for the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. Two weeks ago, before the break Clint Bowyer went on to break a one-hundred and ninety race winless streak as he was able to fend off Kyle Busch for the victory.

It is the fourth victory for Ford and Stewart-Haas Racing as they continue their incredible start to the 2018 season. This has been the best beginning to a season for the team seeing how all four of their cars are in the top sixteen in points. Stewart-Haas has always been a championship contending race team but this year they have catapulted to the top and to top it all off they head to a track where they have been successful in Texas Motor Speedway.

Last November, Kevin Harvick went on to pass Martin Truex Jr in the waning laps to take the victory and solidify his spot in the championship race. He would be the favorite going into this race seeing how intermediate tracks like Texas really play to his strengths.

Look for him to be out front this weekend. More than likely we will be seeing more long green flag runs. In the last race here, the first stage went completely incident free and we didn't see a yellow flag for an on-track incident until lap 94 when Kasey Kahne and Daniel Suarez both crashed in turn two, so expect more of the same this weekend.

My prediction to win the race this weekend is Ryan Blaney. Last year, Blaney appeared to be on his way to his first career victory. He dominated the first two stages and led the most laps (148) but ran into trouble when he contacted the lapped car of Corey Lajoie after he held him up in turn four. To show his displeasure, Blaney slammed into him in the tri-oval which cost him the victory. He would however bounce back somewhat to finish in 12th. Blaney had a hard time finishing races before he claimed his first victory last year at Pocono Motor Speedway, but this is not uncommon for younger drivers. We saw this with Kyle Larson two years ago and it even goes as far back as Jeff Gordon.

Drivers like Blaney, Chase Elliott and Daniel Saurez are accustomed to driving shorter races in the Xfinity series, so it is understandable why they have that issue. Blaney has appeared to be the first to correct it though seeing how he was the first "young gun" to come out and win a race.

Blaney has been running exceptionally well this season. He is currently third in points behind Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. He is due for at least a couple of wins this year and this is where I think it begins. One thing that Blaney struggled with last week though was his long run speed but that was a much different race track. Look for the Number 12 to take the checkered flag.

My Darkhorse for this week's race is Aric Almirola. This has been a career year for Almirola. While he has finished in the top 10 only twice, he has been solidly running around there this whole year. As I wrote in my season preview article, Almirola was due to have a great season and so far he has. His career stats should not overshadow how talented he is.

While not a knock to the legendary Richard Petty ,the resources that they have are good but not at the level of Stewart-Haas and now that he is in a little bit better equipment he is finally getting the chance he deserves. He is 11th in points and was two corners away from winning the Daytona 500 until  Austin Dillion turned him head-on into the wall on the last lap. 

While he has struggled here at Texas, I think a better team and a change of scenery will make a world of difference. Keep an eye out for Almirola and the Smithfield Ford to be a contender.

 (All stats and information used in this article is brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Refrence.com the best website for all NASCAR stats)

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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