NASCAR power rankings: Post Daytona

This is the first edition of my NASCAR Power Rankings. Following each race I will rank the Top 20 driver’s based off of their finish over the weekend, their previous ranking and the momentum they’re carrying into the next race. Below the driver’s name you can see an arrow that indicates whether they’ve climbed the rankings, fallen down the rankings, or a dashed line indicating their ranking did not change. This week’s rankings will not feature any rise or fall arrows due to the fact that these are the first rankings I’m releasing this season.

 

1. Ryan Blaney

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Rankings

Photo from AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Blaney dominated Daytona by leading a race-high 118 laps, but finished seventh. Although he didn’t bring home the checkered flag he still captures the top stop in my first power rankings. He ran strong all throughout speedweeks with the Clash and the Duels. Watch for Blaney to continue his strong start with Team Penske.

2. Joey Logano

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Logano had an up and down race at Daytona but eventually brought it home in fourth. He went a lap down due to an error on pit road, but a late caution got him back on the lead lap. Some very skillful and patient driving helped him avoid a few wrecks and navigate his way back to the front. Logano is looking to bounce back after a tough 2017 season, and he’s starting off on the right foot.

3. Denny Hamlin

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Rankings

Photo from racereviewonline.com

Like Logano, Hamlin experienced a few setbacks during the race. He overshot his own pit box on the first caution and was penalized for it. He hung in there and got his lap back under caution and found his way back to the front late. Throughout the race he led 22 laps and battled Darrell Wallace Jr. door-to-door to the finish and was scored third, literally inches short of second. Hamlin rolls into Atlanta looking strong.

4. Martin Truex Jr.

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Truex was mostly a non-factor throughout the race. Hailing as last season’s Champion and stage points king, he finished with the second-most stage points on the day (11). He was unable to pick up a stage win and finished the race in a paltry 18th place after sustaining crash damage. Truex Jr. is still atop the sport as a one of the best, look for him to bounce back this week at Atlanta.

5. Kyle Larson

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Larson got caught up in a big wreck, but wasn’t knocked out of the race. The damage he sustained in the wreck made his car uncompetitive and resulted in him riding around the back for most of the day. He finished 19th, three laps down. Larson will undoubtedly come back strong this week at Atlanta where he finished second at this race last season. He’s one of the most talented driver’s in the sport right now and he probably hasn’t even hit his prime yet.

6. Kyle Busch

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Rankings

Photo by LAT Photographic

The younger of the two Busch brother’s had a miserable day at Daytona. For the second year in a row a blown tired ruined his day early. Last season a blown tire resulted in a huge wreck that took him out of the race. This year it only damaged his car enough to put him several laps down and ride around the back of the pack for 200 laps. He was able to salvage a 25th place finish since so many others wrecked in front of him. “Rowdy” is surely looking forward to Atlanta, where he has one win and two top-5s in his last four appearances there.

7. Brad Keselowski

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Keselowski finished in a disappointing 32nd place after starting just one spot ahead of that, 31st. He made his way to the front and was looking strong until he was involved in the big wreck on lap 101. The wreck also ended the day for Chase Elliott, Kasey Kahne, Danica Patrick and several others. Keselowski is one of the premier restrictor plate racers so it was unfortunate not being able to watch him battle for the win in the dying laps. He’ll be a favorite this week at Atlanta as he won the race there last season.

8. Chase Elliott

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Rankings

Photo from LAT Photographic

Elliott has looked strong at every Daytona race he’s been in but he just can’t seem to finish. While running third with a very strong car he got turned around and slammed into the outside wall taking several cars out with him. He continues to look strong almost every week, he’s inching closer and closer to his first of many wins. Atlanta could be the one, he has a series-best 6.5 average finish over the last two races at the track.

9. Austin Dillon

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Rankings

Photo from AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Dillon clinched the biggest win of his career so far and it truly was historic. He put the 3 car in victory lane for the first time since Dale Earnhardt Sr. did it back in 1998. He only needed to lead one lap to get the victory, he wrecked Aric Almirola on the final lap to get the win. Him and his team made sure they wouldn’t forget the victory by getting a “Daytona 500 Champs” tattoo on their backsides. If Dillon struggles this week at Atlanta, we can blame it on sitting on his sore backside for several hours straight.

10. Kevin Harvick

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Harvick was involved in the big Chase Elliott crash and the damage he sustained forced him out of the race a few laps later. He’s known as being “the closer” because he comes on strong late in races to compete for wins. This week at Atlanta he’ll look to close, which he couldn’t do last year, after he led 292 laps but a speeding penalty on pit road cost him the victory.

11. Paul Menard

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Menard had a strong showing at Daytona and was able to finish it off with a strong finish, sixth place. In his first season in the 21 car with Wood Brothers Racing he’s looking to get his second career win and reach the postseason. He’s off to a strong start this season and we’ll have to see if he can grab Wood Brothers Racing their 100th win sometime this season.

12. Alex Bowman

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Rankings

Photo from Brian Lawdermilk / Getty Images

The young-gun replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a spectacular run at Daytona… until the very end. He started on the pole and led 13 laps throughout the race and was in contention for a top-5 and possibly a win. Unfortunately he got caught up in a late crash and limped his damaged race car to a 17th place finish. All things considered, it was a very strong showing from Bowman and he’ll look to build on it this week and Atlanta.

13. Aric Almirola

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Heartbreak. The one word that sums up the race for Aric Almirola. He avoided wrecks all race long and put himself in first place on the final lap. A chance to lock himself into the playoffs in the first race of the season quickly disappeared as Austin Dillon turned him hard into the wall, resulting in an 11th place finish. In his first race driving the number 10 car for Stewart Haas Racing, he looked composed all race long and competitive during crunch time. Although it was a heartbreak finish, the day up to that point should give the team something positive to build off of moving forward.

14. Kurt Busch

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Rankings

Photo from NASCAR.com

The older of the Busch brothers had a better race until the very end. Kurt Busch, last year’s Daytona 500 winner, had his hopes of repeating crushed when he spun off the nose of Ryan Blaney’s car with two laps to go. He led 16 laps and hung around the top-10 for most of the day. The crash resulted in a 26th place finish, one spot behind his younger brother Kyle. This week he’ll look to get back to his winning ways for the first time in over a year when NASCAR hits Atlanta. He’s a three-time winner at the track and started on the pole back in 2016.

15. Darrell Wallace Jr.

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Rankings

Darrell Wallace (43) edging out Denny Hamlin (11) for second at the finish. Photo from youtube.com

Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. made history with his runner-up finish in the Great American Race. He edged Denny Hamlin by inches at the line for second place as the two slammed door-to-door into one another. His finish of second was the best by an African American driver at Daytona, and he’s won over many hearts of NASCAR fans with his story and finish. He fought back tears during post-race questions while receiving hugs from his mother and sister. The rookie heads into Atlanta with momentum and tons of fans behind him.

16. Erik Jones

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For the second straight year Jones wrecked out of the Daytona 500, and again it wasn’t his fault. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. made an incredible save in front of him but cut off Jones and forced him to spin out and collect several others including Jimmie Johnson. Jones led 11 laps and looked to have a fast car, but was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many believe he’ll have a breakout season in his first year with Joe Gibbs Racing in the 20 machine. He’ll look to bounce back with a strong finish at Atlanta where he finished 14th last season.

17. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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Stenhouse Jr. led 11 laps but eventually was in the middle of a large wreck with a few laps left, he finished 29th. At the end of the first stage he nearly spun in front of the field but made a highlight reel save. His save resulted in a massive pileup behind him that took out several heavy hitters. Stenhouse Jr. and Roush Fenway Racing are trying to prove that they aren’t just a restrictor plate racing team this season, we’ll see how they fare at Atlanta this week. The Roush Fenway duo of Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne finished 12th and 13th last season at Atlanta.

18. Jimmie Johnson

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Rankings

Johnson (48) wrecking with Suarez (19) and William Byron (24). Photo: Mark J. Rebilas, USA TODAY Sports

Johnson was the victim of one of the big one’s that occurred late in stage one at Daytona. He finished in a tough 38th position, accumulating only one point from the season-opening race. He ended last season in a slump and for now it continued into this season. The 7-time champ has a good chance to break out of the slump this week at Atlanta where he’s won two of the last three races there, five total in his career.

19. Clint Bowyer

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Bowyer brought the number 14 car home in a respectable 15th position, ahead of many of NASCAR’s big names. He didn’t lead any laps, but he was arguably one of the most undamaged cars on the track. He experienced some type of issue later in the race that required his team to look under the hood, causing him to go a lap down. Coming off his best season in recent memory, Bowyer is looking to build off that and return to the playoffs this season for Stewart Haas Racing.

20. Jamie McMurray

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McMurray, or Jamie “Mac”, experienced a similar race to Bowyer. He finished in 16th, ahead of many big names like the Busch brothers, Keselowski, Harvick, Johnson and others. Jamie Mac is coming off a better season in 2017 where he benefitted from the growth of his Chip Ganassi teammate, Kyle Larson. He’s heading to Atlanta where he’s coming off a 10th place finish there last year. But prior to that 10th place finish you have to look back 11 races to find his last top-10 finish at the track.

 

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Survival

Daytona Race Recap: ‘The Survival 500’

The 60th running of the Daytona 500 lived up to its expectations. It included numerous large crashes that all could have been labeled ‘The Big One.’ Each took out several of the sports’ biggest names and favorites to win. “The Survival 500” is easily the best nickname for this year’s race.

Stage One

In the dying laps of stage one, the first big wreck occurred. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. threw a big block on Ryan Blaney to hold onto second place. In doing this, Blaney incidentally turned Stenhouse’s car sideways towards the wall. Stenhouse swerved hard right straight towards the wall but made an incredible save. But instead of staying on the high-line and letting cars pass him low, he quickly cut down in front of Erik Jones to keep him back.

Survival

Jones (20) and Johnson (48) colliding late in stage one. Photo from NASCAR.com

In doing this he caused Jones to spin in front of the pack and collect several other cars, including Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Larson, Daniel Suarez, William Byron, and Ty Dillon. After being checked from the infield care center, Johnson said he wasn’t happy with how hard other drivers were blocking that early in the race. Kurt Busch went on to win stage one and get one playoff point.

Stage Two

Late in stage two the big one struck again. Brad Keselowski gave Chase Elliott a big push and the two jumped out of line with the intent to pass Ryan Blaney for the lead. Blaney changed lanes in front of Elliott and it caused Elliott’s car to get loose and take a right turn all the way up the banking and hard into outside wall.

Survival

Elliott (9) slamming into the wall about to be hit by Kahne (95) and Patrick (7). Photo from NASCAR.com

Keselowski’s car would also go around and the two spinning cars would collect several others. Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, David Gilliland, and Danica Patrick were all knocked out of the race in the wreck.

After leaving the infield care center, Danica Patrick told Fox Sports that ‘It just wasn’t meant to be.’ Ryan Blaney went on to win stage two and get the one playoff point.

Final Stage

Nearing the end of the race, William Byron blew a tire and spun out, bringing out the caution. This would reset the field for a late restart that was sure to get ugly.

Survival

Busch (41), Stenhouse Jr. (17), Bowman (88), and others colliding late in the race. Photo from NASCAR.com

With less than two laps to go Kurt Busch spun off the nose of Blaney’s car causing yet another huge crash that took out more big names. Blaney slipped through the crash while only sustaining minor damage to the nose and right side of his car. He dominated most of the day and led a race-high 118 laps, but his car wasn’t same after the damage.

In total, this wreck involved Blaney, Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Stenhouse Jr., Brendan Gaughan, Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Jeffrey Earnhardt, and the pole-sitter, Alex Bowman. This wreck sent the 60th running of the Great American Race to NASCAR Overtime.

Survival

Almirola (10) slamming into the wall after being turned by Dillon (3). Photo from NASCAR.com

On the final lap Aric Almirola led the field. He sliced to the top of the track to block a hard-charging Austin Dillon in the 3 car. After the block by Almirola, Dillon got into the bumper of the 10 and turn him straight into the outside wall.

The caution didn’t come out and NASCAR let them race back to the checkered flag. Dillon crossed the line first with the rookie, Darrell Wallace Jr., and Denny Hamlin door-to-door for second. Wallace Jr. edged Hamlin at the line by a mere few inches for the runner-up finish. Joey Logano and Chris Buescher rounded out the top-5 in this hectic race.

Post-Race

After the race Dillon commented on how he wrecked Almirola to take the lead. He claimed that in the same situation Almirola should do the same to him. Almirola, after being released from the care center, voiced his displeasure and how he was heartbroken over the finish.

Survival

Dillon ‘dabbing’ after winning the Daytona 500. Photo from NASCAR.com

Dillon did an Earnhardt-like burnout through the grass and eventually climbed out of his car and ‘dabbed’ towards the crowd. The 3 car hadn’t won at Daytona in 20 years. The late Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the last to park the 3 in victory lane back in 1998.

The win for Dillon locks him into the playoffs in the season-opening race.  He seems to have a knack for winning the big races. He got his first career win last season when he stretched it on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte.

Next week NASCAR travels to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where you can expect far fewer wrecks and many more cars running on the final lap.

 

Featured image courtesy of Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

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Daytona

60th Running of the Daytona 500: What to watch for

The 60th running of the Great American Race is almost here and it’s primed to be a good one. Countless storylines have developed over the offseason and the drivers are itching for the green flag to drop. Before that happens, here’s a few things to watch for during Sunday’s Daytona 500:

Team Penske

The Penske Fords flexed their muscles during the Advanced Auto Parts Clash last Sunday by all finishing in the top-four. Keselowski took home the victory after driving through the pack from starting in last. Bounce-back candidate, Joey Logano, finished in second, and Penske new-comer, Ryan Blaney, brought the 12 car home in fourth.

Daytona

Photo from NASCAR.com

During the Clash the trio ran 1-2-3 for a large majority of the race. Keselowski has one win back in July 2016 at Daytona, while Logano won the 500 back in February 2015. Logano also has three top-6s in his last four Daytona races.

In the Can-Am Duel on Thursday night we saw much of the same. The three Penske teammates dominated the race from start to finish. Logano led most of the Duel but Keselowski was wrecked late by Jamie McMurray as Ryan Blaney made a move on his teammate Logano for the lead.

Blaney brought home the win and Logano edged the rookie, Darell “Bubba” Wallace Jr., for 2nd. Team Penske has looked stout throughout the Clash and the Duels, look for the trio to be strong on Sunday. Blaney starts 3rd on Sunday with Logano behind him in 5th. Keselowski will be forced to use a back-up car after getting wrecked in the Duel. He’ll start back in 31st.

Roush Fenway Racing

We can’t forget about the Roush Fenway Fords. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took home two restrictor plate victories last season, and one was at the July Daytona race. He’s become a name that you expect to see leading the pack late at Daytona or Talladega. He was involved in a wreck last year during the 500 that resulted in a 31st place finish, but prior to that he finished 5th in the July 2016 Daytona race.

He’s an absolute bulldog on restrictor plate tracks. He’s known for putting his car into places that it often doesn’t fit, but somehow he makes it out the other side unscathed in most cases.

Daytona

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

In the Can-Am Duel on Thursday night he was all over the track and “caused” two wrecks because of his driving. Although, it’s more of a matter of opinion whether they were his fault. William Byron and David Gilliland spun and crashed as Stenhouse Jr. cut underneath them and took the air off their cars without ever making contact.

He ended up fourth in the Duel and will start 9th in the race on Sunday.

Stenhouse’s counterpart, Trevor Bayne, is also a winner at Daytona. While it may seem like ages ago, back in 2011 Bayne crossed the stripe first in a season where he didn’t have a full time ride. It’s worth noting that he has two top-10s in his last three races at Daytona and three in the last five. He’ll roll of 18th at the drop of the green.

Ford manufactured cars have won seven straight restrictor plate races and a total of 16 of the last 28.

The New Chevy ZL1

During the offseason Chevrolet unveiled the sleek 2018 Camaro ZL1 as the new Chevrolet model race car. Chevy tied Ford with 10 wins during the 36 race season, trailing the Toyota’s by six (16).

Daytona

Photo from @TeamChevy Twitter

Teams such as Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing, Leavine Family Racing, Richard Childress Racing, Richard Petty Motorsports, and JTG Daugherty Racing all are hoping that the new Chevy model will have a little more speed than last year’s model.

The Toyota’s were the class of the field for the majority of last season. They led 5,757 laps out of the 10,611 on the season, an astounding 54.4 percent. They also won nearly half the races, including eight of the ten playoff races. Last season was the first year for the new model of Toyota Camry, and it took the Toyota driver’s some time to get going. While they did experience a slow start to the season, once they did hit their stride they never looked back for the rest of the season.

Will the new ZL1 experience the same slow start the Camry’s did last season? If so, can they bounce back and dominate down the stretch enroute to a championship just as the Toyota’s did in 2017?

Danica Patrick

Patrick is making her final Daytona 500 start of her NASCAR career. There’s a few storylines to follow with her in her final Daytona start. She’s no longer dating fellow racer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. The two split during the offseason and she’s since become involved in a relationship with Green Bay Packers’ quarterback, Aaron Rodgers.

It’s going to be interesting to see how the two race each other since they split. When the two were together they both claimed they would race each other as if they were just another driver on the track. We’ll have to see if there’s any bad blood between the two as they hit the asphalt on Sunday.

Another thing to watch for is how aggressive she’ll be. Patrick refuses to let the guys push her around and may initiate the pushing if it means a chance to win for her. She’s never won a NASCAR Monster Energy Series race and wants to leave her mark on the sport before stepping away from it for good.

She’ll start 28th with some fast cars in front of her on Sunday.

The Great Equalizer

The draft is one of the things that makes racing on restrictor plate tracks so great. If you’re not familiar with drafting, it’s when the cars run single-file on the track, bumper-to-bumper, to maximize their speed. By racing single-file they’re much more aerodynamic, which evens out the playing field. Even if a car has sustained damage at Daytona, the draft will still make the car just as fast as the undamaged cars. Whether you’re a seasoned vet or a rookie, if you can utilize the draft properly, you can run at the front.

While its easy to predict names like Keselowski, Stenhouse Jr., and Logano to be at the front or even win the race, there’s several other names you need to watch for because of the draft. David Ragan is a name you probably haven’t heard in a while. He races for a smaller, lesser known team, Front Row Motorsports. Ragan won at Daytona in 2011 and Talladega in 2013. He’ll start 15th on Sunday.

Another name you shouldn’t sleep on is Paul Menard. While he only has one career win, he’s stepped into a competitive 21 car with Wood Brothers Racing. He’s run strong at Daytona recently, finishing 3rd and 5th in the last two races there. He’ll start 16th along side Ragan.

The Big One(s)

Daytona

Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP

The restrictor plate tracks, Daytona and Talladega, are both known for “The Big One.” The Big One, meaning a huge chain-reaction crash that takes out numerous cars, and theres usually more than one of these big pileups. If you can avoid the several small crashes and the couple big ones throughout the race, there’s a good chance you’ll have a top-10 run as the laps start to wind down. It’s not crazy to see only 20 or so cars running at full speed in the dying laps.

 

Feature image credit: AP / John Chilton

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Eichel

What does the Jack Eichel injury mean for the Buffalo Sabres?

The Sabres will be without superstar Jack Eichel after he sustained a high-ankle sprain Saturday night in Boston. He went for the puck behind the Bruins net and lost an edge. His legs/knees bent awkwardly underneath him as Bruins’ defender Matt Grzelcyk piled on top of him. Watch the video of the injury here.

In Eichel’s third season he was leading the Sabres in goals (22) and assists (31) for a total of 53 points in 55 games. While the team has severely underachieved this season he was on pace for the best season of his career. He was only two goals and two assists short of tying his career-highs. With 27 games left he was surely going to set career-highs in goals, assists, and points.

The timetable for his return is projected to be four to six weeks barring setbacks.

Even Less Scoring

The Sabres sit at the bottom of the Eastern Conference in not only points, but also in the goals-for category. They’ve scored 132 goals, which is a league worst, three less than the Arizona Coyotes (135). The Coyotes, experiencing a similar underachieving season, sit at the bottom of the Western Conference.

Eichel

Sabres’ leading goalscorer Jack Eichel. Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Buffalo averages only 2.4 goals per game and that number is only expected to decline without Eichel on the ice. He’s accounted for 22 of the teams 132 goals scored, four more than teammate Evander Kane (18). Eichel has scored or assisted on 40 percent of the Sabres’ goals this season, which is an astounding stat.

Not only will they miss his scoring, but they’ll also miss his incredible playmaking abilities. He led the team in assists (31) when he went down on Saturday night. Teammate Kyle Okposo is the next most on the team with 24 assists on the season. Eichel has unbelievable stick skills and is known for making crazy plays/passes that give his teammates chances to score. Without him on the ice expect the playmaking ability of the team to take a significant step back.

Embrace the tank

The team has finished at the bottom or very close the bottom of the NHL over the past few seasons but hasn’t been lucky enough win the draft lottery to secure the first overall pick in the draft. Right now they sit second last in the league with 42 points, ahead of the Coyotes by four points. With Eichel not expected to return until somewhere between March 10th and March 24th, he’ll miss around 14-20 games. Missing their best player on the ice for that many games should help the Sabres lose more games and cement their spot as last in the league. Being dead last in the league gives them the highest percentage to win the draft lottery and secure the number one overall pick.

With the first overall pick the Sabres can draft the unquestioned number one player, defenseman Rasmus Dahlin from Sweden. The team needs a lot of work on defense and by adding another Rasmus to the defensive core, alongside Rasmus Ristolainen, they’ll greatly be improving their team on the back end.

Dahlin took home a silver medal in the 2018 World Junior Hockey Championships in Buffalo, NY just a few months ago. He impressed throughout the tournament and the Sabres and their fans would be love to see him return to Buffalo for the long-term.

Trade Kane to a contender

Evander Kane has put together a decent season with 18 goals and 20 assists for 38 points through 56 games. Kane says he’s focused on the Sabres and not the trade deadline as it’s now less than two weeks away. But he has stated that he desires to get his first taste of playoff hockey in the NHL. He isn’t likely to experience it in Buffalo for at least a few more years.

Eichel

Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

The Sabres should be proactive in regards to embracing the tank, as much as fans hate it, and move Kane to a contender for a decent pick in the upcoming draft. By getting rid of their second best offensive piece behind Eichel, they’re further ensuring they reach the bottom of the NHL standings behind the Coyotes. Plus with getting a pick or two for Kane they can add another young player though the draft that will continue to help the rebuild in Buffalo.

Shut Eichel down for the season

There’s no reason to rush Eichel back this season and risk a set back or even another injury. The team has no chance of making the playoffs, they’ll be mathematically eliminated over the next few games. In the best case scenario he returns with 14 games to play, but in all likelihood he won’t be ready until there’s only 10 or less games to play. With the team missing the playoffs and wanting to be in the best position moving forward in regard to the draft and Eichel’s long-term health, they should shut him down for the season.

The longer off-season will ensure that he returns to full health for next season. Without him on the ice for the remaining 27 games they’ll almost certainly finish last in the league.

The 2017-2018 season is already a lost cause and they need to be looking ahead to the 2018-2019 season.

Give the young guns a chance

With the season having already gotten away from them, the Sabres need to give their future talent a chance to shine on the big stage. C.J. Smith, Nick Baptiste, Hudson Fasching, Alexander Nylander, and most notably Casey Mittelstadt, are all names that come to mind.

Eichel

Casey Mittelstadt playing for Team USA. Photo from tipofthetower.com

The group is all current Rochester Americans’ players except Mittelstadt. The Americans’ currently sit in the playoff picture as the season nears the 3/4 mark largely due to these players. While Rochester will want them down the stretch for the playoff push, the Sabres should give them a chance in Buffalo to show off their talent with the chance to continue to play up next season. Mittelstadt mightily impressed in Buffalo during the 2018 World Junior Championships, in college with the Minnesota Golden Gophers, and in the USHL.

 

 

Featured image courtesy of Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

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2018 NASCAR season predictions

5 bold predictions for the 2018 NASCAR season

With the 2018 NASCAR Monster Energy Series (NMES) season just a week away, it’s time to look at five bold predictions that might just happen. The offseason featured several drivers changing teams, retirements and much more. Click here to make sure you’re caught up on everything that happened before the season gets underway!

Jimmie Johnson Misses the Playoff

A seven-time champion missing the playoff? It might not be as far-fetched as you think. Johnson scored three wins last season, so it’s tough to say it was a down year. Three wins in one season is a great feat, especially with the level of talent NASCAR has these days.

But it’s still concerning how uncompetitive Johnson was in the races that he didn’t win. He won three races over a span of seven weeks, but was never really in the running for another victory in the other 33 races.

The 2017 season featured Johnson setting several new career lows across the board. He lead the fewest laps of his career (217), had his worst average starting (16.9) and finishing (16.8) position of his career and tied his career most DNFs (seven). Plus, he scored his least top-5s (four) and top-10s (11) of his 16 full seasons.

2018 NASCAR season predictions

Photo from nesn.com

The start of the youth movement at Hendrick may further decline his numbers. Last season, Johnson spent a lot of time helping and mentoring teammate Chase Elliott. While this helped Elliott have a career year, Johnson had his career worst in most aspects. This season, he’ll have two rookie teammates, William Byron (20 years old) and Alex Bowman (24 years old). It’s not hard to imagine Johnson spending too much time mentoring the rookies and giving away his tricks that helped him win seven titles.

Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus’ domination over the last decade has been record-setting, winning seven championships in the last 12 seasons. But as Johnson enters the 2018 season at 42 years old, could father time start to catch up with him?

William Byron gets first win before Chase Elliott

Chase Elliott has been so close to parking his Chevrolet in victory lane on numerous occasions, but he just hasn’t been able to close out races. In his two seasons, Elliott has six second-place finishes and five third-place finishes, and a total of 22 top-5s.

2018 NASCAR season predictions

Photo from racingnews.co

In his first two seasons, it’s been a combination of not being aggressive enough at the end of races and getting caught up in wrecks that weren’t his fault. At Dover in 2017, he wasn’t aggressive enough late and let Kyle Busch get by for the victory. Four races later at Martinsville, Denny Hamlin put the bumper to Elliott and sent him spinning into the wall, resulting in a 27th place finish.

William Byron enters the 2018 season as the rookie teammate to Elliott. Even though they are teammates, there will be no shortage of competition between the two for their first win. He’s coming off an Xfinity Series title where he won four races in his rookie season in the second-tier series. Elliott also won the Xfinity title in his rookie season in the series.

Byron will enter his NMES rookie season in similar shoes as Elliott, expected to battle for a win every week. If Elliott’s closing struggles continue in 2018, Byron could learn from this and ensure that he does things differently. The rookie could capitalize on his teammate’s struggles and seize his opportunity to win the first chance he gets.

19 Different Regular Season Winners

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series hasn’t had 19 different winners since the 2001 season. But with the variety of talent entering 2018, there’s hope that we could see 19 winners again. The most interesting thought about having that many winners is that there’s only 16 playoff spots. A win locks you in the chase, but that’s only if there’s 16 or less winners. Once you eclipse 16, then it goes by total points for those tied with one win.

Last season featured 15 different winners, the most since 2013 when there was 18. Of those 15, only Matt Kenseth will not be returning to the track this season. So hypothetically, if you count each driver that won last season for at least one win this season, that puts us at 14.

Now let’s look at the notable, talented drivers that did not win last season. First off, there is Elliott. He’s on the cusp of his first of many victories in this series, and it’s only a matter of time.

2018 NASCAR season predictions

Photo from NASCAR.com

Second, Jamie McMurray. Jamie Mac hasn’t won since 2013, so he’s definitely due. He has seven career wins, and since gaining Kyle Larson as a teammate, he’s looked stronger each season. He’s coming off his best season since 2004 in terms of average finishing position. In 2004, his average finish was 13.2, and in 2017, he marked his career second-best at 14.6.

Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, now teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, are both entering their second full season. Jones, similar to Elliott, nearly won last season, but couldn’t get by Kyle Busch late at Bristol.

Suarez, NASCAR’s first full-time Mexican driver, had a very strong second half of the 2017 season. He was fast and lead at the restrictor plate tracks and put together 12 top-10s in his rookie season. It wouldn’t be a shock to anyone if he parked his 19 machine in victory lane this season.

That brings us to 18 winners. Next, you can look at the rookie drivers, William Byron, Alex Bowman and Darrell Wallace Jr. Byron is coming off an Xfinity Series title and is stepping into the 24 car at a competitive Hendrick team. He’s got the raw talent behind the wheel to pick up a win in his rookie season and make some noise the playoffs.

Bowman has substituted in the NMES in recent years and put together some strong runs. Subbing for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2016, he led a 194 of 324 laps and finished sixth. Just like Byron, he’s joining a competitive Hendrick team that will give him the equipment necessary to run up front.

2018 NASCAR season predictions

Photo from ftw.usatoday.com

Wallace Jr. takes over the 43 car at Richard Petty Racing this season. While subbing for an injured Aric Almirola for four races in 2017, he impressed enough to get a full-time ride with RPR. In his two full Xfinity series seasons, he accumulated six wins and 23 top-10s. His third Xfinity season was cut short after 13 races due to lack of funding, but still scored an impressive eight top-10s.

If just one of these three rookies can put together a full race and make the right moves at the end, we could see 19 winners once again.

Erik Jones makes the round of 8

Jones is coming off his rookie campaign where he took home Rookie of the Year honors. Jones showed poise and composure all season long which helped him earn a ride with JGR after his one-year contract expired with Furniture Row Racing. He nearly won the Bass Pro Shops NRA Night Race at Bristol, but was narrowly topped by Kyle Busch. He led a race-high 260 of 500 laps, but eventually finished second to the veteran.

2018 NASCAR season predictions

Photo from erikjonesracing.com

During his rookie season, he totaled five top-5s, 14 top-10s, and one pole. In 2018, he’ll be driving the 20 car for JGR, taking over for Matt Kenseth. Last season, he was teammates to the champion, Martin Truex Jr. This season, he’ll be teammates with another NASCAR champion, Kyle Busch. Jones already has a strong relationship with Busch and will look to build on that as the two are now official teammates. He’ll no doubt take what he learned from Truex Jr. and apply it to what he’ll learn from Busch. With this wealth of knowledge from NASCAR champions, expect him to notch his first victory during the regular season.

In the playoffs, there’s a few tracks that Jones has run well at: Richmond, Dover and especially, Phoenix. In the Round of 16, NASCAR will run it’s first ever race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course, otherwise known as the “Roval.” The Roval could really be anyone’s race because no one has ever run a race there before. The Round of 12 includes Dover, where Jones could go to victory lane and lock himself into the Round of 8.

With the success he experienced in his rookie season, combined with the wealth of knowledge he’ll gain with JGR, it’s not crazy to imagine Jones racing his way into the Round of 8.

Joey Logano wins his first championship

Joey Logano is coming off a tough season where he missed out on the playoffs, but not because he didn’t win. He started the season hot, with seven top-10s in the first eight races of the season. He followed that with his only win of the season at Richmond in the ninth race. Following the race, his winning car was found to be in violation of rear suspension dimensions, so his win was encumbered (doesn’t count as a playoff berth). The encumbered win truly took the wind out of the 22’s sails. In the next five weeks he finished 21st or worse and averaged a 17.81 finishing position following the encumbered win.

2018 looks to be a bounce-back year for Logano. He picked up a new teammate in Ryan Blaney, and already has a NASCAR champion, Brad Keselowski, as his other teammate. Blaney, whose coming off a breakout year with technical alliance team Wood Brothers Racing, could competitively push Logano to be better.

2018 NASCAR season predictions

Photo from autoracing.com.br

Across the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, he combined for 14 wins and was consistently leading laps week in and week out. During those three seasons his average finishing positions were, 11.3, 9.2 and 10.5 respectively. In the 2016 season, Logano pieced together three wins and finished second in the championship standings behind only Jimmie Johnson. He looked like he was going to be a perennial contender for the title for the remainder of his career.

Logano’s 2017 down season must be looked at as an anomaly, he simply has too much raw talent to not battle for a championship in Homestead. Look for Logano to bounce back very strong in 2017 with multiple wins throughout the regular season and the playoffs.

It may have only taken one playoff-less season to motivate Logano to go get his first NASCAR Monster Energy Series title.

 

Featured image from tvinsider.com

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Calder

Calder Trophy race heating up

As we close in on the final quarter of the 2018 regular season, it’s time to take a look at the Calder Memorial Trophy race. For those of you unfamiliar with it, the award is given to the most proficient player in his first year in the NHL. Past winners of the trophy include some names you’ve probably heard before, such as Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin.

Lets take a look at this season’s current front-runners:

1. Mathew Barzal: C – New York Islanders

Calder

Photo from msgnetworks.com

Barzal was a first round pick of the Isles back in 2015 where they took him 16th overall. He currently sits 16th in the points race in the NHL with 53 points. He’s ahead of household names such as Patrick Kane, Brad Marchand and even Tyler Seguin.

Barzal is a large reason that the Islanders are in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. He’s third in points on the team behind John Tavares (59) and Josh Bailey (57). He’s provided an additional spark to the Islanders as he’s cemented himself as a reliable second-line center between Jordan Eberle and Anders Lee. He leads all rookies in assists with 37, which is 10 more than the next rookie Will Butcher of the New Jersey Devils.

2. Brock Boeser: RW – Vancouver Canucks

Calder

Photo from Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press

Boeser was drafted 23rd overall in the same draft as Barzal, the 2015 draft. Boeser is one of the lone bright spots for the Canucks this season. He leads his team in points with 46, which is nine more than the veteran in second, Thomas Vanek. Boeser has five points over his last five games and participated in NHL All-Star weekend.

At the All-Star weekend he took home the MVP award after the All-star game and also won the accuracy-shooting competition. Boeser has closed the gap between himself and Barzal for the Calder with his play and accomplishments of late.

3. Yanni Gourde: C – Tampa Bay Lightning

Calder

Photo from lightningstrikehockey.com

Gourde is apart of the extremely efficient Tampa offense that leads the league in scoring with 3.56 goals per game. He went undrafted but signed a one-year AHL contract with the Syracuse Crunch in 2014. This is his first full season playing up with the Lightning and he hasn’t disappointed. They’ve re-signed him to a two-year contract worth $2 million.

He sits third in rookie points with 38 and sixth on the Lightning in total points. He leads all rookies with a +23 in the +/- category and is only +2 behind Victor Hedman (+25) for the team lead. His stellar +/- shows the positive impact he’s had when on the ice while contributing from the third line.

Calder Dark-horses:

In most years you’ll see the Calder Memorial Trophy be awarded to a forward, but in some cases that hasn’t been true. Three times in the last 14 seasons the award was given to a blueliner. Aaron Ekblad in 2014-2015 with the Florida Panthers, Tyler Myers in 2009-2010 with the Buffalo Sabres and Barret Jackman in 2002-2003 with the St. Louis Blues. Two rookie defenseman have turned heads this season and deserve a good, hard look before the award winner is decided.

1. Will Butcher: D – New Jersey Devils

Calder

Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Butcher was drafted back in 2013 by the Colorado Avalanche in the fifth round, 123rd overall. This season he was given the chance to play in the big league with the Devils and has run with the job.

Butcher leads all Devil defenseman in assist (27) and points (29). The most astounding fact is that he’s done it while playing on the third defensive line and with only 16:09 average-time-on-ice (ATOI). His ATOI is the eighth least out of nine New Jersey defenders per espn.com.

 

2. Charlie McAvoy: D – Boston Bruins

Calder

Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

McAvoy was taken off the board at 14th overall in the 2016 draft by the Bruins. He played last season for the team in the playoffs as they were shorthanded at the defensive position and was a pleasant surprise as he provided a huge spark to the team. In six games played last season, all in the playoffs, he tallied three assists and logged heavy ice-time.

This season he’s played in 46 of the team’s 50 games and has accumulated 25 points. He plays on the top defensive unit along side Zdeno Chara with 22:43 ATOI, which is over four minutes more than the next rookie skater. The Bruins have earned at least one point in 20 of their last 21 games. McAvoy’s stellar play on defense, indicated by his +19 rating (2nd best among rookies), has directly contributed to this astonishing streak the team is riding.

 

 

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Vegas setting a new standard for expansion franchises

The Vegas Golden Knights have put together a historic first season so far and continue to impress game after game. The Golden Knights have taken the bar set by previous expansion franchises and raised it to an unimaginable level. Following the team’s 34th win of the season on Thursday night, let’s reflect on their historic season thus far.

 

A Hot Start

Vegas came out of the gate ready to play. They started out winning their first three games and eight of their first nine. This was easily the best start for an expansion franchise in the history of the NHL. The team went to overtime in three of their first seven games, and came out the winner in all three. They showed early that they weren’t a team to be taken lightly just because they were new to the league.

 

Goaltending Depth

The Golden Knights have been forced to start four different goaltenders this season. During the first quarter of the season there was a stretch of games where the team was plagued by multiple goalie injuries. Marc-Andre Fleury went down after just four games and Malcom Subban got the starting nod in his place. Even without their starting goalie, Vegas didn’t miss a beat and kept the wins coming. Fleury and Subban have accumulated incredible stats this season when healthy. Fleury owns a 14-4-2 record with an incredible 1.79 goals-against-average (GAA) and a .942 save percentage. Subban has earned a sparkling 11-3-1 record this season when between the pipes.

 

Expansion

Starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury
(Photo from AP Photo/LM Otero)

Eventually Subban would go down with an injury and third-stringer Oscar Dansk was asked to carry the load. Again the Golden Knights carried on seemingly unfazed as they rolled to three wins in four of his games played. Dansk owns great numbers in his limited action, a 3-0 record with a 1.78 GAA and .946 save percentage.

 

As if it couldn’t get worse, Dansk would also fall victim to an injury. Fourth-stringer Maxime Lagace was the next man up between the pipes. While his numbers aren’t as stellar as the three other netminders, he helped the team to a 6-6-1 record during his play. That’s 13 out of a possible 26 points that the team earned with him in net. His play helped keep the team afloat as their goaltending depth wore thin, there’s not much more you can ask from a fourth-string goalie.

Reliable Goalscoring

The Golden Knights are a team made up mainly of players that weren’t retained by the other 30 NHL teams. While you’d expect these players to produce subpar numbers, that hasn’t been the case. Vegas has three 20+ goal scorers and another two close to that milestone. Plus, they have three skaters with over 40 points and another three above the 30 point mark.

Expansion

Golden Knights leading scorer Jonathan Marchessault
(Photo from sportingnews.com)

Jonathan Marchessault has produced 18 goals and another 30 assists to lead the team with 48 points. He’s averaging exactly a point per game as he’s played in 48 of the team’s 51 games. Marchessault was a breakout player for the Florida Panthers a season ago, but was shockingly not protected after the season. Vegas wasted no time and nabbed him during the expansion draft.

Marchessault has made sure to make the Panthers pay for not protecting him. Vegas doesn’t plan on making the same mistake, they’ve since locked him up long-term with a 6-year $30 million deal.

David Perron and William Karlsson round out the top three in points for Vegas. Perron with 46 points and Karlsson with 44. Karlsson, selected from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft, leads the team in goals with 27. That number puts him tied for third in the league in that stat and only five goals behind the league-leader, Alex Ovechkin. Perron holds the team lead in assists with 33, only two short of his season-best from back in 2008-2009, but he still has 31 games to play.

The Record

It only took 50 games for the Golden Knights to set a new record for most wins in an inaugural season by an expansion franchise. By downing the Winnipeg Jets in overtime on Thursday night, Vegas set the new record at 34 wins, breaking tie with the 1993 Florida Panthers. The craziest part, is that the Golden Knights still have another 32 games left on the schedule following Thursday night’s win over the Jets. Given how well they’ve played this season, it’s not crazy to imagine that they push the record to somewhere between 50-55 games.

Current Standings

With 31 games left the Golden Knights sit atop the Western Conference standings with 72 points. They only trail the Tampa Bay Lightning by one point for the league lead and own a 2-0 head-to-head record against them this season.

Not only do they lead the West in points, but they also lead the West in goals for (173). They’re tied for second in the league with the New York Islanders (173) and only trail the Tampa Bay Lightning (183).

It’s beginning to look like the Vegas Golden Knights will be the first expansion team in the last 26 years to secure a postseason berth.

 

A New Expansion Standard?

However long it takes for the next NHL expansion franchise to come to fruition, they better start preparing now. They’ll be heavily scrutinized and compared to the incredible season the Golden Knights have put together. Most wouldn’t expect the first season of an expansion franchise to do this well, but Vegas has raised the bar very high. There’s no longer a free-pass for a subpar first season, competing for a playoff spot could be the new expectation set by the greatest NHL expansion franchise of all time.

 

Featured picture courtesy of nhl.com/goldenknights

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NASCAR Offseason: Up to Speed

This past NASCAR offseason has been one of the busiest in recent memory. If you blinked, you might’ve missed some significant moves that’ll leave you confused when the green flag drops this season. After a dominating season by the Toyotas, specifically Martin Truex Jr., see what changes teams have made to keep up with the Furniture Row Racing driver.

 

Team Penske

Verbal-paint.jpg

(Photo from ryanblaney.com)

Team Penske is coming off an interesting season, depending which of their drivers you look at. Brad Keselowski reached the Championship 4 at Homestead with a total of three wins, and finished fourth in the final standings.

Teammate Joey Logano is coming off a bit of a down year. He missed the playoffs even though he reached victory lane once. His only win was encumbered (doesn’t count as a playoff berth) due to a rear suspension violation found post-race.

Team Penske added a third car to their team this offseason by signing Ryan Blaney to drive the number 12. In his second full season, he got his first win with Wood Brothers Racing and finished ninth in the final standings.

 

Wood Brothers Racing

Following the departure of Ryan Blaney to Team Penske, Wood Brothers Racing had a seat to fill. They brought in Paul Menard to takeover the spot in the 21 car. Menard previously raced for Richard Childress Racing (RCR) and totaled one win and 19 top 5s over his 10 full seasons.

 

Joe Gibbs Racing

Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) is returning three of their four drivers from 2017, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Daniel Suarez. Busch is coming off a season where he amassed eight total wins and finished 2nd in the standings and came within seconds of taking home the championship. Denny Hamlin totaled two wins and finished 6th in the final standings. Suarez will be returning following his rookie season where he finished the second half of the season very strong and was one of the drivers on the cusp of making the postseason.

JGR scored big by signing Erik Jones to replace the veteran Matt Kenseth in the 20 car. The 45 year old was not offered a contract extension and struggled to find sponsorship for the upcoming 2018 season, so he announced he would be stepping away from the sport. Jones left Furniture Row Racing, who has a technical alliance with JGR. At Furniture Row, Jones won rookie of the year with five top 5s and 14 top 10s. He was also teammates with the series champion, Martin Truex Jr.

JGR features a stable of two veteran drivers and two second-year drivers. The vets have combined for 74 wins in the NASCAR Monster Energy Series while the two second-year drivers are hungry for their first win.

Stewart-Haas Racing

Stewart-Haas Racing, named partially after the NASCAR great Tony Stewart, also returns three of their four drivers from last season. Kevin Harvick returns after finishing third in the final standings and totaling two wins. Kurt Busch, winner of the 2017 Daytona 500 re-signed with SHR for at least the 2018 season. After reaching victory lane in the season opener, he wouldn’t find it again and finished 14th in the final standings. Clint Bowyer also returns for SHR after just missing the playoffs. He collected six top fivess and 13 top 10s to complete his best season in recent years.

Danica Patrick departed SHR and will no longer race full-time in the sport. She’ll be racing the number 7 GoDaddy Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports in the Daytona 500 but isn’t expected to race any other events this season at this time. Coming in to take over Patrick’s number 10 machine is Aric Almirola. He comes over from Richard Petty Racing, a one-car team that he had raced for over the past six seasons and grabbed one career win.

Richard Petty Racing

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(Photo by LAT Photographic)

With Aric Almirola packing his bags and heading over to SHR, Richard Petty Racing will give Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. his first full-time shot in the series. He filled in admirably for the injured Almirola for four races and averaged a 17.4 finishing position with no DNFs. Wallace will become the first black driver to race full-time in NASCAR’s top series since 1971.

Hendrick Motorsports

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(Photo from NASCAR.com)

Hendrick Motorsports is undergoing a large youth movement approaching the 2018 season. While they will return 42 year old 7-time champion Jimmie Johnson, they’ll have three drivers under the age of 24. Chase Elliott, 24 years old, is returning for his third full season, all with Hendrick. He’s been unbelievably close to capturing his first win but just hasn’t been able to seal the deal. He amassed 12 top 5s and 21 top 10s this past season. Many believe that he’s almost a lock to get his first couple wins in 2018. He will be changing numbers from 24 to 9, the famed number that his dad drove to 38 wins.

William Byron, the 2017 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion and rookie of the year, will take over Kasey Kahne’s ride. Hendrick announced they would not retain Kahne following a string of lackluster seasons. With Elliott dropping the number 24 for the number 9, Byron will take the 24. After winning the Xfinity Series title at only 19 years old, the now 20 year old will step into NASCAR’s top series full-time and look to be competitive right out of the gate.

Rounding out the youth movement for Hendrick Motorsports is Alex Bowman. Following the retirement of Dale Earnhardt Jr, NASCAR’s most popular driver 15 years straight, Alex Bowman will drive the 88 car full-time in 2018. Bowman, 24 years old, substituted for Earnhardt Jr. in 2016 when he was injured for 10 races and totaled one pole and three top 10 finishes.

Leavine Family Racing

After parting ways with Michael McDowell, Leavine Family Racing (LVR) signed Kasey Kahne to a one-year deal. Kahne is coming off a season with Hendrick Motorsports where he got his first win since 2014. In 14 full seasons, Kahne has 18 wins and 92 top 5s. LVR will be hoping they can find the Kahne of old, who in 2006 won six races in one season.

 

Featured image courtesy of NASCAR.com

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