THE LEFT TURN

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

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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Coogs beat the Sooners, 87-85. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images.

Jamal Shead hit a short follow shot with 0.4 seconds left and No. 1 Houston beat Oklahoma 87-85 on Saturday night, giving coach Kelvin Sampson a victory over one of his former schools.

Shead missed a driving layup attempt, but corralled the rebound and put the Cougars back ahead after they blew a 15-point lead. Emanuel Sharp tipped away a desperation pass by Oklahoma’s Milos Uzan as time expired.

“The main thing (on the last shot) was to get it to the rim,” Sampson said. “We weren’t going to shoot anything outside of 5 feet. There were three ways to win that game — a whistle, make the shot or (grab) an offensive rebound and put it in — and we got the third one.”

Sampson credited the result to Houston’s “winning DNA. We had a lot of things go against us tonight. … We were just plugging the holes in the boat up.”

L.J. Cryer led Houston (26-3, 13-3 Big 12) with 23 points, making 5 of 9 3-pointers. J’Wan Roberts added 20 points on 10-of-12 shooting, and Shead scored 14 points. Houston shot 56.7% from the field and Oklahoma was at 52.7%.

Rivaldo Soares had 16 points for Oklahoma (19-10, 7-9). Le’Tre Darthard had 15 points, finishing 5 of 7 from 3-point range.

Sampson coached Oklahoma from 1994 to 2006 and ranks second in program history with 279 wins and first in winning percentage (.719). Before Saturday, he’d never coached against the Sooners, but Houston’s entry into the Big 12 for this basketball season provided that opportunity.

Sampson received a warm welcome as he entered the Lloyd Noble Arena court, with many fans applauding, cheering and standing. Just before player introductions, Sampson and his three assistants with Oklahoma ties — former players Hollis Price, Quannas White and Kellen Sampson, his son — were individually recognized with announcements and pictured on the video board.

“The memories that I will take from here are just amazing,” Kelvin Sampson said. “Oklahoma will always be home in a lot of ways.”

Houston made its first week this season at No. 1 a successful one, with two wins. The Cougars are a game ahead of No. 8 Iowa State in the conference standings with two games left in the regular season and remain in the conversation for the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Houston has won eight of the last nine games it has played as the No. 1-ranked team and is 35-5 overall while atop the AP poll.

Oklahoma dropped its second game of the week against a top-10 opponent, having lost 58-45 at Iowa State on Wednesday night.

The Sooners pushed Houston to the limit. Houston led 67-52 with 12:01 left, but the Sooners methodically closed that gap and Javian McCollum’s layup with 11.8 seconds left tied it at 85. It came after a hustle play by Uzan, who tracked down a rebound off a missed free throw and threw it off the leg of Sharp, allowing it to carom out of bounds.

Oklahoma coach Porter Moser said the vibe in the Sooners’ locker room was “tough. It wasn’t like they were happy to be close. They’re hurting. That’s a good sign. … That’s the elite of the elite and we’ve got to find a way to win that. That’s my job.

“I thought they were resilient battling back. Houston made tough shots, open shots, good shots. They do a lot of good things … but I thought we did too. We played the best team in the country, but we fell short. The margin of error when you play a team that good is small.”

Godwin went 6 of 6 from the field and led Oklahoma with 17 points, missing only the one free throw in six attempts as well. He also had seven rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Houston: Sampson surely appreciated the warm welcome from fans on his return to Oklahoma, but he’s undoubtedly glad to have the emotional game against the Sooners over with. Now he can push the Cougars to focus on finishing the regular season strong and prepare them for the postseason.

Oklahoma: A win over the nation’s No. 1 team might have pushed the Sooners up a line or two in NCAA tournament seeding, but the loss shouldn’t damage their postseason hopes too much. Oklahoma probably needs at least one win next week — at home against Cincinnati or at Texas — to stay comfortably off the NCAA bubble heading into the Big 12 Tournament.

UP NEXT:

Houston: At Central Florida on Wednesday night.

Oklahoma: Host Cincinnati on Tuesday night.

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