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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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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