THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR is California Dreamin' at Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR continues its West Coast swing as they head for the high banks of California for the Auto Club 400. Opened in 1997, this track was sort of the prototype for what we would see 20 years later, only this track is slightly larger as it is exactly two miles in length. Because of how large this track is, usually we see cars get three and four wide especially after a restart. After a while though, the leader is usually able to find clean air and separate himself from the field.

With the spoilers on the rear being so large, one thing I have observed has been how these cars stall out when they get side-by-side. Because the rules package of this year is so similar to last year's, I would imagine that there will be much of the same thing. After the tragic loss of Kobe Bryant last month, NASCAR announced that there will be numerous tributes to the fallen basketball icon. Drivers William Byron and Ryan Blaney will both be racing with a purple and gold paint scheme to pay homage to him and his daughter Gigi and the seven others that passed away in the wreck. Personally, I think that this is one of the best things that NASCAR and their employees have done in a while. As we all knew, he was much bigger than basketball with everything he has done off the court. I am sure wherever he is in the universe, he would be proud that a sport he had little connection to is honoring him. Other tributes will include a moment of silence and his number embroidered in the front stretch grass.

Last week, as predicted Joey Logano went on to claim his 24th career victory at Las Vegas. In the closing stages, Ross Chastain spun out causing a late race caution. In a strange decision, race leader Ryan Blaney and a crowd of others decided to pit with four laps to go, costing them valuable track position and essentially any chance at a victory. While Blaney and others were out of contention, many others including the winner all stayed out. For Logano this was the winning move as he was able to hold off Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

While the season is young, there have been several drivers who have had some of the best results of their career. One of those drivers has been Darrell Wallace Jr. He started 2020 with a respectable 15th place showing and then backed it up with a sixth last week. While the car wasn't as good in the early stages, Wallace had done a great job making his way back into the top 20 and then found himself in the top 10 after his crew chief Jerry Baxter kept him out on the race track. He was able to hang on with old tires and get a sixth place showing. Another driver who has been impressive this year has been Corey Lajoie. After a bitter-sweet eighth place finish at Daytona, Corey was able to follow that up with a solid 15th place finish. Others that were impressive were Stenhouse who finished third and Dibenedetto who finished second. While the season is still very young, it has been refreshing to see such parity in the sport. I don't think anyone around the sport could have predicted what we have seen so far. It should be fun to watch going forward.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is William Byron. When it was announced that Byron would be inheriting Chad Kanus from Jimmie Johnson last year, many believed that Byron would finally make the leap and contend for wins and while he made the playoffs, he wasn't able to get to victory lane. This year, the young man has been insanely fast. At Daytona he was running in the top five before crashing out, the next week at Vegas he was also up front for a good portion of the race before spinning out on the final lap. This week, I think it will be much different and he will claim his first career win. While he has struggled here in his first two races finishing 15th both times, this team has improved greatly. Not only has Byron improved but his Hendrick teammates Jimmie Johnson, Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott have been fast as well. Over the off-season Chevrolet has made vast improvements to their Camaro including improving the nose of the car, which was a massive obstacle last year. Because of this, I see Byron and his team reaping the benefits and becoming the first Hendrick car to go to victory lane in 2020.

The sentimental favorite this week as he will be every week is Jimmie Johnson. As we all know, this will be the final time he will run at his home-track. Because of this, his wife and daughter will give the command to fire engines before the race starts making it all the more special for the seven time champion. If there was ever a place that he would finally break this long winless streak, this track might be at the top of the list for sure. In the sport's 23 year history here, no one has won at this track more than he has. He even got his first win here all the way back in 2002. I look for Johnson and his Hendrick teammates to battle it out for the victory 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)

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J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans all-time leader in sacks (96.0), is entering his ninth season with the franchise ahead of what will certainly be an anomaly year for the NFL. Due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, there is serious doubt that the NFL will be able to play a full 16-game schedule, while others express their concern with the league's inability to play any form of football come the fall of 2020.

There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the league this coming season, which is becoming a theme for Watt's future in Houston.

The 31-year-old defensive end has two years remaining on his six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in September of 2014. But as he prepares to embark on another year with the Texans through Zoom meetings with his teammates, a new contract is not on Watt's priority list.

"No, I don't think that's necessary," Watt told Houston reporters on Wednesday. "I fully understand and respect the situation that I'm in at the moment, and what's happened in the past few years, so I'm not gonna sit here and demand anything. I think if I went back and asked for an extension or more money, I think that would be the wrong move. I am just going out there to prove my worth and to help this team win games."

As of now, it is unsure what the future holds for Watt's career with the Texans. Should management re-sign the three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner (2012, 2014 & 2015), the question becomes: How much is Watt worth as he enters the twilight of his career? It's the subject that will be the driving force when discussing Watt's future with the team, and the segment that sparked a trade rumor of his departure to the Chicago Bears.

Although his on-field production remains extremely valuable, Watt has had a difficult time trying to stay healthy. Since 2016, he has missed 32 out of a possible 64 games due to an abundance of injuries. In 2019, Watt missed half of the season after suffering a torn pectoral during the Texans' 27-24 victory over the then-Oakland Raiders.

"My goal for every season is to do whatever possible to help this team win, and number one, that means staying healthy," he said. "You have to be on the field in order to help the team win, and then it is to play at the peak physical level I am capable of. It is just making sure I am in the best possible shape to perform that way."

Contract and injuries aside, the five-time Pro-Bowler is excited about his opportunity to play under new defensive coordinator, Anthony Weaver. During his introductory press conference two weeks ago, Weaver said Watt will remain the focal point for the Texans' defense in 2020, but acknowledged getting the future Hall of Famer through 16 games remains a hurdle.

After four seasons serving as Houston's defensive line coach, the Texans promoted Weaver to defensive coordinator in January to replace Romeo Crennel.

"I love [Anthony] Weaver... I think that he has a great mixture of knowledge of the game, experience, but also personality to be able to handle the players in the room," Watt said. "To be able to inject some fun and excitement into meetings, practice and everything, all while bringing the knowledge necessary to run a good defense."

Under the guidance of a new defensive coordinator, Weaver may be just the coach to help Watt rekindle the potential that made him an All-Pro defensive end. Regardless of the uncertainties surrounding his future at the conclusion of his contract, Watt is hoping he will have the opportunity to finish his career where it started — in Houston.

"That is a goal of mine, and this city [Houston] has been incredible to me since I got here," Watt said. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I certainly hope that's the case."

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