THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Talladega preview

Chase Elliot (No. 9) picked up a rare win for Chevy. Jerry Markland/Getty Images

In one of the most anticipated weekends in all of motorsports, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads for the high banks of the famed Talladega Superspeedway for this week’s 1000bulbs 500. The stakes are much higher than the last time we came here as the playoff field of 12 will look to survive and advance to the semifinal round of eight starting in two weeks at Martinsville.

Last week Chase Elliott claimed his second career victory at Dover as he was able to steer clear of trouble and hold off Denny Hamlin for the win. The dominant car of the day was Kevin Harvick. after sweeping both stages and leading a race high 286 laps, a flat tire derailed any chance of victory. On the bright side for Harvick he was able to rebound and finish sixth. With Harvick out of the way, this appeared to open the door for Aric Almirola to finally claim his first win of the season but after a late race caution and a subpar pit-stop, suddenly he found himself in sixth position with six laps to go. After the restart, he was involved in a multi-car crash that ended any chance of victory. After all the attrition, Elliott found himself in the lead and never looked back. With the victory, Elliott moves on to the next round. This victory comes as a surprise seeing how it is only the third victory of the season for Chevrolet.

On Wednesday, Hendrick Motorsports dropped a bombshell as they announced that next season Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson would split at the end of 2018. Starting Next season, Knaus will team up with young rookie William Byron and long-time JR Motorsports crew chief Kevin Meendering will move up and be Johnson’s crew chief. This is one of the biggest surprises in a long time seeing how Johnson and Knaus have worked together since Johnson's Rookie year in 2002. Over the course of nearly 17 seasons, both have had enormous amounts of success as they would go on and win seven championships and 83 race victories. This move is equivalent to Tom Brady and Bill Belichick splitting up as no other driver-crew chief combo have had more success then these two in the sport. Overall, I think the reason for the split lies with the fact that both probably want a fresh start somewhere else. Both are in the midst of their worst season on record as Johnson has yet to win a race in 2019. More than likely, I think that William Byron will benefit the most from this move; now he gets arguably the greatest crew-chief of all time. It will be interesting to see how the move will affect each driver in the future.

The other big storyline was the announcement that fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto will move to Leavine Family Racing and drive the No. 95 Procore Toyota Camry. This is a big deal for him seeing how he will finally get a chance to run in better equipment as the team will form an alliance with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing. Many believe that this move will finally propel DiBenedetto to victory lane and more than likely at some point he will get there but as to next season, I am not sure if they are quite there yet. Be on the lookout for this team next season, though.

Brad Keselowski comes into Talladega as the driver to beat. He leads all active drivers with wins here as he has five victories including his first win back in 2009. Many consider him the best driver on plate tracks since Dale Jr. retired in 2016 and it makes sense why seeing how he learned under Jr. back when he started racing. He should be hard to beat as he looks to punch his ticket to the round of eight.

The driver that I predict will go to victory lane this week is, you guessed it, Aric Almirola. If you know me, I have been high on him since it was announced he was moving to Stewart-Haas racing. I have picked him to win at both Daytona and Talladega this season and this week will be no different. Over the course of the last three plate track races, Almirola has come extremely close, from getting crashed out on the final lap in the Daytona 500 to finishing sixth at the race in Talladega in the fall. I really see no reason why he can’t finally break through and win this week so as long as he stays out of trouble. Look for the #10 Smithfield Ford to take the checkered flag come sunday.

Darrell Wallace Jr, is my sleeper pick for this weekend. It’s no secret that 2018 has been a tough season for the rookie driver as he currently sits in 27th place in points. This season he has struggled mightily but has shown flashes on the plate tracks, I can see him mixing it up with the leaders and possibly being in contention to win. Aside from all of the issues this team has getting up to speed, going out and getting a good run at Talladega would be huge. Look for Bubba to have a great race come sunday.

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

 

THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Ford Ecoboost 500 preview

Martin Truex will try to send his team out in style. Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

This week, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads to Sunny Homestead-Miami Florida for the final race of the 2018 season, The Ford Ecoboost 500. After 36 weeks of battle, this race decides who will represent the sport as champion. Homestead-Miami  has played host for the season finale for the last 16 seasons. This is arguably the biggest race in all of NASCAR considering what is on the line and there is no better place in the world for it to take place. This track is a mile and a half in length and is known for its 18- degree banking in the corners. Over the years, the track has produced some of the best finishes in recent memory and with everything that’s at stake this week should be an all-time classic.

Last week at Phoenix, Kyle Busch took the checkered flag to officially cement his spot in the championship four. He did so after his brother Kurt Busch was involved in a multi-car crash involving him, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. In the closing stages of the race, Hamlin entered turn four and got into the side of Kurt Busch causing both to hit the wall bouncing back into Chase Elliott.

Hamlin was criticized for his “lack of respect” for the situation that Busch and Elliott were in contending for a championship. At first glance it was easy to understand why fans were upset but upon further review of the video, it would appear that the track was not maintained properly by NASCAR’s clean up crew.  On NASCAR Race Hub Radioactive segment, Defending champion Martin Truex Jr. was quoted as saying “they didn’t clean up the bleeping track for one thing. Everyone went down there and it was like ice. They just don’t get it.” His Crew Chief Cole Pern responeded by saying “yeah they do, it creates excitement. That’s their plan.”

These are fairly serious allegations but it isn’t so farfetched seeing NASCAR has made some pretty dumb calls regarding track maintenance in the past. For example, last season at Dover, they decided to restart the race without fully cleaning the backstretch. This oversight caused Ty Dillon to spin and collect multiple cars with him in the crash. While it may not be intentional and it is definitely difficult to manage these instances but they are proof that NASCAR could do a much better job at track maintenance and cleaning up the track. Let’s hope they have learned their lesson from last week because it has cost two drivers a chance at a championship.

Of the four drivers, Joey Logano enters Homestead as the only one who has never won a title. He has however made it to the championship race three times including this year in 2018. Each attempt has ended in heartbreak whether it be dropping the car off the jack during a pit-stop in 2014, or being involved in a late race crash in 2016. This year Logano hopes that history won't repeat itself and will finally claim his first championship. If he is to win it, it will have been well deserved seeing how he has an excellent season. This year, Logano has 12 top fives, 25 top-10s and two victories including the win that got him here at Martinsville. While he has lurked in the shadows of his competition, he has consistently been in around the front all season. While Logano has a good chance to win the title, the one variable that he must be weary of are the drivers that he  has upset over the duration of the season including Martin Truex Jr and Aric Almirola. Regardless, Logano looks to have a real shot at winning his first title.

Easily, Martin Truex Jr, enters this race as the sentimental favorite to win the championship. As most fans know, Furniture Row racing will cease operations after this race. Truex and his crew chief Cole Pearn have been the spark that have made this team a championship winning organization and now he has a chance to come back and send his team off with one last championship, This has been a rollercoaster type season for him though and while he has been in contention, Truex has yet to win a race since the announcement of his teams closure. In the end though, I don’t foresee this being an issue at Homestead. This is a track where Truex has struggled although as he has the lowest average finish of the group but he has shown that he can win here. Truex has a lot working against him but he still has a great shot at winning his second title.

After last week’s debacle, Kevin Harvick comes to Homestead with a chip on his shoulder. After his win was disallowed two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, he looks to come in and prove his doubters wrong by claiming his second championship. If he does pull it off, he has definitely earned it with how incredible he has ran this year. Overall He has 22 top fives and 28 top tens with an average finish of 9.0! In percentages, he has finished in the top 10 in 80 percent of the races this year. This has easily been the most dominant season of his career as he has won more races now than ever before even in his championship winning season in 2014. Come Sunday, Harvick is going to be hard to beat.

While Harvick has had the best season statistically, Kyle Busch has come pretty close to matching the success of his championship rival. This year, Busch has eight wins, twenty-one top fives and twenty-seven top tens, nearly identical to the stats that Harvick has been able to put up. After winning last week at Phoenix, Busch comes to homestead with the most momentum on his side and when you get this 18 team in a rhythm they are hard to catch. Besides no one has made it to Homestead more than Kyle Busch as he has only missed the final round one time since the sport adopted this format in 2014. Look for Busch to be around the top three for most of the day as he looks to clinch his second NASCAR Championship.

Over the past four years that we have seen this format, I think this is easily the best four drivers we have ever seen make it to Homestead. Unlike the previous years, we won’t see a driver who got on a hot streak at the end of the season like we did with Ryan Newman in 2014 or Jeff Gordon in 2015. This is the cream of the crop and that’s why I think this will be one of the most memorable championship battles of all time. I look forward to seeing who gets to hoist the trophy come sunday evening.

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

 

 

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