NASCAR Cup Series at Pocono: M&M's Fan Appreciation 400 preview, picks

Kyle Larson looks like a solid bet this week. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for the Pocono Mountains this week for the M&M’s Fan Appreciation 400. This track is the only one on the schedule that is shaped as a triangle, its long straightaways usually bring long green flag runs, so we will see a lot of strategies come into play similar to what we saw last season. It will be interesting to see what kind of tire wear we see with these brand-new cars at this 2-mile racetrack.

Last week, Christopher Bell claimed his second career victory and his first of 2022 at New Hampshire. In the closing laps, Chase Elliott and Kurt Busch were racing hard for the lead, and Bell was able to sneak past both of them and never look back. This had been a long time coming for the third-year driver, he had been rattling off a lot of quality runs up near the top 5. It seems like this team just gets better around the end of the summer, we saw it with Erik Jones and Tony Stewart. This team will be a threat in the playoffs if they continue to run this well.

After his win in New Hampshire, Christopher bell became the 14th different winner of the season, and now only two spots remain in the playoffs with five races remaining in the regular season. The drivers currently on the cut-line are Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. They are currently third and fifth in points. If there haven’t already been enough questions about the legitimacy of these playoffs and this format, I can’t imagine the debate that will take place if two drivers who are in the top five in points miss out on the playoffs. Would it be fair? Absolutely not, but at the end of the day, these drivers needed a win and, they have yet to get one. 2014 champion Kevin Harvick is the first car out of the playoffs and at this point, getting in on points is pretty much out of the question. His only option is to win a race. If he can’t, it’s over and there is a legitimate chance that Kevin Harvick will retire at season's end. It is sure to be a dramatic next month of August to decide the field on who will run for the championship at year's end. I don’t envy these drivers or crews that are fighting to get in.

It was announced on Tuesday that NASCAR will make its street racing debut in 2023 in Chicago. The track will be a 12-turn, two-mile track through the streets of downtown. This race will take place as we all expected it to on the July 4th weekend. There will be a lot of intrigue with this race as each corner will be 90 degrees, so we will more than likely see a lot of bumping and banging. This is truly a landmark moment for the sport and I look forward to seeing how this works out.

With the excitement of one move comes the heartbreak of a track losing its date. It was announced that this race will take the place of Road America. I was a little bit surprised at the move considering how many people showed up to watch the race. There were plenty of other options for NASCAR to make this work logistically. One idea was it could have been used for the All-Star race. Regardless, this is a huge blow for a lot of fans that live in the Elkhart Lake region of Wisconsin and my heart truly breaks for them as they don’t have many other races they can go to as the Milwaukee Mile remains in limbo. Let's hope that Road America finds success with another series like IMSA or IndyCar, and the great fans that they have keep showing up.

Drama building?

The Kyle Busch contract drama continues, but now things are looking a bit bleaker. "We’re in a bad place right now,” said David Wilson, Toyota Racing CEO about his contract situation. It appeared that they were making significant strides in their search for a sponsor and were close to coming to an agreement, but the deal fell through. The fact that Kyle Busch may not return to Joe Gibbs Racing next year is something a lot of NASCAR fans have had a hard time grasping. He’s easily been the greatest driver that Toyota has ever seen. He even scored the manufacturer's first win back in 2008 at Atlanta. It’s clear that Toyota and Joe Gibbs want him to stay, but they have a young driver in Ty Gibbs who is dominating in the Xfinity Series. The whole situation is similar to Tony Stewart back in 2008. While Gibbs wanted to keep him, Joey Logano was next in line and Tony had ownership plans. This will easily be the biggest storyline going forward into the next few months.

This week, though, the focus shifts to Pocono and the driver I have winning on Sunday is Kyle Larson. Ever since his win at Auto-Club, the defending champion has been up and down, but has yet to win a race this season. If you had told me at this point last year that he would only have one win on the whole year, I would have thought you were crazy, but here we are. By no means has this been a bad season for him, but there have been so many disappointments from losing his crew chief Cliff Daniels at Sonoma because of a loose wheel, to last week at New Hampshire when the handling went away, and he was regulated to a disappointing 14th place finish. This week he is going to a track where he’s shown a lot of speed, in fact, last season he was one corner away from winning here before blowing a tire. A win couldn’t come at a better time for Larson, look for the #5 Camaro to go to victory lane this Sunday.

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DeMeco Ryans feels like the perfect fit. Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.

There’s one big difference between the Houston Texans and the Canadian Mounties.

The Mounties always get their man. The Texans not so much. That’s how second and third (and desperation) choices like David Culley, who never even was a coordinator in his nearly 30-year NFL career, and Lovie Smith, whose top credential for the job was being in the building, got to be Texans head coaches the past two years. Both of whom were one and done – summarily fired after disheartening, aimless seasons.

But that all changes with the imminent hiring of 38-year-old DeMeco Ryans as Texans head coach. An announcement could come any moment.

With one bold stroke, the Texans will be cleaning up a mess that took years to fester. Ryans is the perfect candidate for the job. He was drafted out of Alabama by the Texans in 2006 and became Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro linebacker. He played six years in Houston when, lest we forget, the Texans developed into a winning team bound for the playoffs.

After retiring in 2017, Ryans became a successful coach with the San Francisco 49ers, rising quickly from defensive quality control to inside linebackers coach to defensive coordinator the past two seasons. This year, the 49ers had the stingiest defense in the league with the fewest points and yards allowed. They allowed their opponents to score on less than 25 percent of their drives – far and away the best performance in the NFL.

The Texans want Ryans and Ryans, who was the hottest head coach candidate on several teams’ wish list, wants the Texans. He’s reportedly said no thanks to the Denver Broncos, a team which appears to have a faster track to rebuilding than the Texans. Contrary to Thomas Wolfe’s classic novel, Ryans believes that you can go home again.

Ryans will accomplish some immediate fixes for the Texans – like bringing respectability to the franchise and soothing wounds with the fan base. The team desperately needs a kick in its image. As recently as five years ago, the Texans were selling out every home game at NRG Stadium with tens of thousands of home-viewing fans wishin’ and hopin’ to buy season tickets.

Then came Bill O’Brien, criminally one-sided trades (in the wrong direction), a divisive and unpopular executive with the owner’s ear, the Deshaun Watson scandal, two head coaches plucked off the scrap heap, and losing … lots and lots of losing. The Texans finished their recent season with three wins and the undisputed crown of most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL.

The jewel of that damning crown was winning a game they needed to lose to guarantee the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft. You’d think that losing would be the easiest thing for the Texans. It’s sort of become their thing.

Not only did they win, they did it the hard way, by going for two in the last minute of their last game and winning by a single point. By winning they forfeited their unobstructed and worry-free path to drafting the quarterback of their choosing. Who thinks to do that? Now they have to wait to see what the Chicago Bears will do with the No. 1 pick.

Ryans will require time, probably a few years at least, to restore the Texans to the ranks of playoff contenders. In blunt terms, the Texans currently stink. They won three games in 2022 after back-to-back four-win seasons. On defense, they were 27th in points allowed. They were 31st in rushing yards allowed. On offense, 31st in yards per game, 31st in rushing, and 31st in third down conversions. There’s only 32 teams in the NFL.

Of course you can cherry pick stats to make a team look good or bad. With the Texans, they’re all bad.

Their returning starting quarterback won’t be starting next season. That’s the plan, anyway. The Texans are expected to draft quarterbacks Bryce Young of Alabama, C.J. Stroud of Ohio State or Will Levis of Kentucky with their No. 2 pick. The Texans may sign a free agent veteran signal caller or trade for one.

And start from scratch. Again. At least this time with a coach that brings hope back to Houston.

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