THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR Toyota/Savemart 350 preview

Sonoma is known for its wine, but this week it will be home to NASCAR. Fred Faour/SportsMap

The Monster Energy Cup series returns from a one week hiatus as the drivers head for wine country in Sonoma, Calif., for the Toyota Savemart 350. Sonoma is one of the three road courses on the NASCAR schedule. The track is 2.52 miles in length and has 12 turns including a hill in the first three turns of the race track.

Sonoma has produced some of the best racing around, it’s not only a host for NASCAR but also for Indycar, IMSA sports cars and even NHRA. While the track is a two and a half mile road course, it has short track characteristics. Due to the tight spaces around the corners, There are plenty of places on the track where drivers have to knock each other out of the way to make a pass for position. Look for there to be a good chance for some angry drivers at some point during the race.

Last week Clint Bowyer went on to claim his second victory of the season for his first multi-win season since 2012. The race ended after one hundred and thirty three laps due to rain. On the final restart Bowyer was able to hold off his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick. My prediction to win for this race was Kyle Larson. The day started out promising for him, he led 18 laps and consistently was one of the quickest cars on the track but on lap 87, Larson spun out in turn four costing him a chance at victory. As a result he finished 28th, a very disappointing result for the winner of the last three Michigan races.

One of the biggest surprises was Paul Menard and his fifth place finish. It has been a solid season for the Wisconsin driver as he scored his best finish of the season. Menard has steadily been creeping into the picture as a driver that can make the “playoffs.” He currently sits tied with Alex Bowman for the 16th and final spot. Menard is sort of NASCAR’s version of Josh McCown; he has driven for five teams over the course of his career including Dale Earnhardt Incorporated and Richard Childress Racing. While he was able to earn a win at RCR in 2011 at the Brickyard, he hasn’t quite achieved the level of success that he would have hoped for but now, it seems like he has found a good home with the Wood Brothers. Menard currently has four top tens and a stage win at Talladega. Don’t be surprised if Menard is able to go to victory lane in 2018.

The favorite going into this race would be Martin Truex Jr. Last season Truex led a race high 25 laps before his Toyota engine let go on lap 86. Truex has always been quite the road racer as he was able to break a 232-race winless streak here in 2013 and has always been upfront when we go to Sonoma or Watkins Glen. While he has a 21st place average finish here, the results are not indicative of how well he has run and he could have at least two or three wins here if it weren’t for bad luck. It wouldn’t shock me if Truex and his crew go to victory lane on sunday.

My prediction to win this weekend is Denny Hamlin. Over the course of his storied career in NASCAR, Hamlin has not been known as a great road course racer, but over the course of the last few years, the results have got much better for him. He comes into this race with two top fives, 44 laps led and an average finish of third. This track has not always been kind to Hamlin. In 2016, he was one corner away from taking the victory until he was pushed aside by Tony Stewart. This would be the final victory for Stewart and his illustrious Hall of Fame worthy career. This year though I think it will be different and Hamlin will break through and get his first win of 2018.

The sleeper pick this week is A.J. Allmendinger. This season has been the season of misery for Allmendinger and team owner Brad Daugherty. They currently sit 23rd in points and have only two top 10 finishes but this week I expect for them to turn it around. Allmendinger grew up racing open-wheel Indy cars around tracks like Sonoma and has shown great promise on the road courses. He is highly regarded as NASCAR’s last true “Road Course Ringer” since Marcos Ambrose left. He captured his first and only victory at the other road course on the Schedule, Watkins Glen. I foresee Allmendinger and the 47 Krogers Chevrolet to be out front and possibly a threat to win on Sunday.

(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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