THE LEFT TURN

NASCAR: The playoffs begin at Darlington

Photo via: Wiki Commons

The playoffs begin for the NASCAR Cup Series and It all begins at Darlington Raceway for the famed Southern 500. They call this track, "the track too tough to tame" as it is one of the roughest tracks on the schedule. Many would consider this track the most challenging on the schedule as there is always a chance that the wall can jump out and bite each driver. It will be interesting to see which driver can come out on top as more than likely the car that can stay the cleanest will go to victory lane. We will also see some great paint schemes as well as it's the annual throwback week, just one of the things that make this race so special.

Last week we saw one of the craziest finishes of the year as William Byorn held off his teammate Chase Elliott for the victory at Daytona. The race was marred by many crashes in the closing stages including a pile-up with two laps to go that collected Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson. This ended the 7 time champion's chances of making the playoffs. It was heartbreaking to see arguably the greatest NASCAR driver of all time fall to where he did and it appeared that he was in prime position to advance and move on as he was above the cutoff line before the wreck. But as it happens on a track like Daytona the big-one struck, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. This has been pretty much the theme this year for Jimmie, just when he thinks he's got some momentum, something comes along and messes it up.

Like at Charlotte after the Coca-Cola 600 when he was disqualified after finishing third or at Darlington when he crashed while leading. The biggest turning point this season for Johnson though had to be when he was diagnosed with Coronavirus back in July at Indy. Regardless, the fact remains that Johnson was not able to close the deal and get a win to lock him into the playoffs and while it was a disappointing way for him to go out, this season will not define Johnson's legacy among the greats. This man did everything right and represented the sport well. He also brought the sport to new heights as well as he was the first ever NASCAR driver to win the AP Male Athlete of the year back in 2008. It is clear that this sport won't be the same with him gone in 2021. I salute Jimmie on his incredible career.

Last week also seemed as a passing of the torch as Jimmies teammate William Byron went on to his first career victory. The 2018 Xfinity Series champion was finally able to close the deal and get to victory lane in the Cup Series. Overall, he is flying under the radar here in the playoffs, but he has one of the best crew chiefs of all time on the pit-box in Chad Kanaus, and he can very well do some damage going forward. I look forward to seeing his progress in the round of 16 as he won just in the knick of time.

As everyone knows, last week's race was the final race before the playoffs and the field is set. The two obvious favorites that stand out are Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. Both drivers have won 13 races combined and appear to be on their way to the championship race in Phoenix, the question is who will be the other two joining them? There have been a few drivers that have really kept a low profile but have had a great season as well, one of those drivers is Brad Keselowski. If this were any other season, Brad would be heavily favored as a championship contender but as everyone knows this isn't any other year, it's 2020. Needless to say, he has been insanely fast as he has won three races with nine top fives and 19 top tens! The consistency is there. If Brad can stay out of trouble I can see him being the third driver in the final four. The other driver to look out for is Chase Elliott. This young man has had a lot to live up to. He is the son of a living legend, there is a lot for him to carry but overall I think he has exceeded expectations and this year he has really put it together. He has put together ten top five finishes with two wins. He has ascended into a championship favorite and I think he is going to be the fourth guy to race for a title at Phoenix!

The driver I have winning this week is Kyle Busch. This has by far been the most challenging season of his career. His average finish this year is a disappointing 15.2, and he also has five DNF's (did not finish) and one big goose egg in the win column. While he is safely in the playoffs and has done a good job at accumulating stage points to fall back on, he would tell you himself that this has been a bad season. Many people are even saying he won't make it past the round of 16, but I am here to tell you that those people don't know Kyle. This is one of the most talented race car drivers of all time and if there is anyone who is primed to make a comeback, it's Rowdy. I look for Kyle to get it together and win this week at Darlington. This is a track that he has run well at over the course of his career. He only has one win here back in 2008 but that doesn't matter, he knows how to get around this place. If he can keep his Elliott Sadler inspired M&M's Camry off the wall and make minimal mistakes, this is a race I can easily see him winning. Look for Kyle to be a threat come Sunday night.

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Protecting Deshaun Watson is critical. Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The last time Houston played Baltimore, things got ugly for Deshaun Watson and the Texans offense. The Ravens defense sacked Watson 6 times and Houston fell behind 34-0 before eventually losing 41-7 in the worst showing by the Texans all regular season.

Protection, Protection, Protection

"Clearly, we don't want to give up any sacks," offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said. "That's one area where like we've talked about before, everyone's involved in that. So, we need to make sure that we're doing a better job of really understanding how important every single play is and going out there and executing to the best of our ability at every single play, every single snap. That's one thing we're stressing to our guys. We're excited to see them out there on Sunday and being able to hopefully put that into action."

Last week against the Chiefs, the Texans offensive line struggled to give Watson time to make plays downfield. Watson was sacked 4 times and it felt as if he was under duress the entire game. It will not get any easier on Sunday as the Ravens defense is one of the leagues best. Led by pass rushers Calais Campbell, Derek Wolfe, and Matthew Judon, the Baltimore defense blitzed the second most amount of times out of any NFL team in their season opening 38-6 win over Cleveland.

"(They have) great players, Calais Campbell's been in the league for a long time," left tackle Laremy Tunsil said. "He's a crafty vet. This is his thirteenth year I believe, and he's a Pro Bowl guy, so we've got to be on our A game. The same with Judon, he's been in the league for a while so he was just at the Pro Bowl last year. Two good players. The whole defense is actually a great defense, a lot of great players… Like I said, we've got to execute our game plan and see the results at the end of the game. That's all we can do."

Success on third down

Pass protection is a major emphasis by the coaching staff this week and if the protection is improved it should allow the Texans to have longer sustained drives and keep Lamar Jackson and the Ravens elite offense on the sidelines. In last year's game, the Texans were only 2-10 on 3rd downs, a stat that must improve for Houston to have a chance at pulling off the upset at home.

"Last year's game is last year's game. This is a new year, so we're not really focused on what happened in that," Watson said. "It got away. They did their job and did what they had to do at home. This year and the talent they got is very, very top-notch. One of the best defenses we're going to see throughout the year. They do a good job of creating different pressures up front, doing a different variety of blitzes, keeping you on your toes and p's and q's. We've just got to make sure that we're locked in and focus on our tasks, our game plan and take it one play at a time."

Jake Asman is a national host on SportsMap Radio. You can listen to The Jake Asman Show weekdays from 8 AM - 10 AM Central.

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