The NASCAR Cup Series heads west for the Wise Power 400 in Fontana, California to kick off its west coast swing. It’s hard to believe it, but this will be the first race at this track since 2019. Since then, this massive two-mile oval has set dormant both figuratively and literally as there are many questions regarding its future. Back in 2020, it was announced that the track would be reconfigured to a half-mile short track. This was met with mixed reactions among fans and drivers alike. There were many questions about how this would work. How were they going to actively take a two and a half-mile racetrack and turn it into a short track, and most importantly, when? The long-term goal was to run a final race on this current configuration last year, but due to pandemic-related reasons, NASCAR couldn’t go to the track, and now it has moved the renovations back a year. There is even a chance they don’t change it all. Only time will tell. For now, in the track's current iteration, we see a lot of bumps in the racing surface which makes it difficult on tires. There is a good chance we see tire wear come into play this weekend.
Last weekend at Daytona, Austin Cindric took home his first career victory. The race was pretty much your typical race at Daytona, everyone sort of laid back after the first big wreck, then went right back to crashing at the end.
The finish was rather controversial as Cindric threw a block forcing his teammate Ryan Blaney into the wall and causing a melee at the finish line. Over the radio, Blaney exclaimed “I’m going to kill that kid,” then when interviewed outside the infield care center, Blaney thanked everyone but his rookie teammate. This could be an interesting storyline going forward, but more than likely Roger Penske will step in. I don’t see this progressing much further, after all it was for the Daytona 500, and you don’t get many opportunities to win the biggest race of the year.
Bubba Wallce continues to improve on his superspeedway efforts, he backed up his victory at Talladega in the fall last season with another impressive second place finish in the 500. In the final 100 yards, it looked like Wallace was gaining momentum to take the victory, but simply ran out of time. While he was disappointed he didn’t get the victory, this could be a really big building block for the rest of the season. I look for the 23XII racing team to make great strides this year
After all of the dust settles at Daytona, this week we will see a bit more of the usual suspects at the front. This Sunday will be no different as I am taking the defending champion Kyle Larson to win. Even in the early parts of his career, Larson always dominated these tracks like Auto Club and Michigan. At one point, he had four victories in a row on these types of tracks. Overall, he seems to be able to run the outside around the wall here better than anyone and find grip where no one else can. Another thing to consider is how much better a racecar he will have this time around as opposed to his last start here in 2019. I look for Larson to begin his title defense with a win at Auto Club come Sunday.
“Another one!”- DJ Khaled
That's the first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Tytus Howard being shut down for the season because of a knee injury. They've had more injuries on the offensive line this season than Nick Cannon has Father's Day cards. Almost every member of the offensive line has spent time on the injury report. Howard went down in the same game in which Juice Scruggs was finally on the active roster. He missed the first 10 games due to a hamstring injury. The irony of next man up has never been so in your face.
The other thing that came to mind was the soap opera As the World Turns.
Howard had just signed an extension this offseason. So did Laremy Tunsil and Shaq Mason. They drafted Juice Scruggs, and signed a few guys too. Those moves, along with other holdovers, were expected to fill out the depth chart. Then a rash of injuries struck. At one point, only one of the original five guys expected to start was playing! In fact, they beat the Steelers 30-6 with that backup offensive line!
One can't have the expectation of backups to perform as good as the starters. They're professionals and are on an NFL roster for a reason. However, the talent gap is evident. One thing coaching, technique, and preparation can't cover is lack of ability or talent. The Texans have done a good job of navigating the injury minefield this season. While the Howard injury will hurt, I have faith in the guys there still.
As of this writing, the Texans are in the eighth spot in the AFC playoff picture. The Steelers, Browns, and Colts are all in front of them at the fifth through seventh spots respectfully. They've beaten the Steelers already. They play the Browns on Christmas Eve and their starting quarterback is out for the season. The Colts are relying on the ghost of Gardner Minshew to steer their ship into the last game of the season vs. the Texans with a possible playoff trip on the line. The Broncos and Bills are the two teams immediately behind them. They play the Broncos this weekend. Even though they're on a hot streak, this is the same team that got 70 put on them by the Dolphins. The Bills are the old veteran boxer who still has some skill, but is now a stepping stone for up & comers.
To say this team should still make the playoffs would be an understatement in my opinion. I believe in them and what they have going on more than I believe in the teams I listed above. That includes teams around them in the playoff race that aren't on their schedule. The one thing that scares me a little moving forward is the sustainability of this line. When guys get up in age as athletes, it becomes harder to come back from injuries. The injuries also tend to occur more frequently when it's a knee, foot, ankle, shoulder, elbow, or another body part critical to blocking for C.J. Stroud.
I know they just re-signed three of those guys and drafted one they believe can be a starter, but depth and contingency plans are a way of life in the NFL. We see how important depth was this season. Why not plan ahead? Don't be surprised if the Texans spend valuable draft capital on the offensive line. By valuable, I'm talking about first through third or fourth rounders. Those are prime spots to draft quality offensive lineman. Whether day one starters or quality depth, those are the sweet spots. The only guy on the two deep depth chart for this offensive line that wasn't drafted in one of those rounds was George Fant, who was an undrafted rookie free agent. While I highly doubt they spend any significant free agency dollars on the group, I'm not totally ruling it out.
The bottom line is, this team will be okay on the line for the remainder of this season. The only way that doesn't happen, more injuries. Stroud is clearly the franchise guy. Protecting that investment is a top priority. I don't care about a number one receiver, or a stud stable or singular running back if the quarterback won't have time to get them the ball. If the pilot can't fly the plane, you know what happens. So making sure he's happy, healthy, and has a great crew is of the utmost importance.