Stewart Out at Watkins Glen, Chase Shakeup Looms
1. Tony Stewart’s injury hands Max Papis his best NASCAR opportunity
Stop for a minute and think what you were doing on Feb. 14, 1999.
Every single day since then, Tony Stewart has been an active NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver. He's made 521 consecutive starts, and scored three championships. Thanks to a vicious sprint car crash Monday night in Iowa that caused a double open fracture of his lower right leg, that streak ends Sunday at Watkins Glen International Raceway. Stewart is out indefinitely.
Stewart, 42, will be replaced by 43-year-old Italian journeyman Max Papis in the No. 14.
Despite the circumstances, it's a fit that could ultimately work wonders for the No. 14 team -- or at least prove to be a best case scenario in an otherwise tough situation.
Papis, who made his name as a CART and Formula One driver, has been working in the NASCAR world for years. He's driven many races, but most of his starts that have been in competitive equipment have come in the Nationwide Series. He’s also often worked as a NASCAR road course driver coach.
Sunday offers Papis his first real chance to drive a top-tier car in the Sprint Cup Series. Plus, it’s a car he’s deeply familiar with: Papis tested Stewart’s No. 14 just last week at the Road Atlanta road course.
Papis will be a hot story early in NASCAR’s final road course weekend of 2013. It’s not a reach to think he might be a big factor when it ends, too.
2. Is a Chase shakeup looming?
Stewart’s injury will likely preclude him from qualifying for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but his looming drop in the point standings while he recovers in a cast won’t be the last shakeup in the five races before the title fight lineup is set.
Watkins Glen, of course, has numerous ways to bite. Drivers can break equipment under heavier-than-normal loads, crash thanks to an over-aggressive competitor or even just come up short in the fuel mileage games that NASCAR teams like to play at road course tracks. Any one issue -- however minor -- could be worth a loss of 20 or 30 points.
That’s incredibly critical considering Jeff Gordon (ninth in points) is just 27 points ahead of Ryan Newman (15th).
“We are in the hornets nest this weekend when it comes to Watkins Glen and the points situation,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “We are holding a wild card position and it’s not the ideal situation to be in.”
3. “King of the Road” no more, Jeff Gordon searches for old form
Jeff Gordon used to be NASCAR’s resident road course ringer. He earned the title by winning seven of the 10 cup series road course races between 1997 and 2001.
But his reign was shortened when drivers and teams began to focus more on how badly they were getting beat twice each season. Cars improved and the drivers did too. Many routinely attended road course racing schools or received private instruction from sports car drivers.
The increased emphasis translated to Tony Stewart becoming the Jeff Gordon of NASCAR road courses, scoring five wins in 10 starts at Watkins Glen. It also saw Gordon’s dominance at Watkins Glen reduced to the track becoming a routine struggle for his team.
“We used to head into road course events feeling confident we would gain points and have a shot at the win,” Gordon said. “With the competition so much stronger, it's a battle just to get a top 10 now.”
He’s not kidding, either. Since his last Watkins Glen win in 2001, Gordon has scored just two top-10 finishes and averages a result of 20th. One of those finishes -- a ninth-place run in 2007 -- should have been a win for Gordon until he wheel-hopped Turn 1 and spun while leading with two laps left. Stewart lapped up the win.
“We had a runner-up finish at Sonoma earlier this year and I felt we learned a lot in the second half of this race last year,” Gordon said. “And the road course test we did earlier this year was more for this race instead of Sonoma, so I'm hoping that pays off this weekend.”
4. Breakthrough win in sight for Kurt Busch at Watkins Glen
With the scales at Watkins Glen tipped more to the side of the driver in racing’s everlasting debate over whether it’s the driver or the car, Sunday’s race might just fit in the hand of Kurt Busch.
Busch and his No. 78 have been a popular pick for several weeks now to finally get a 2013 win, and they’ve been growing closer. He is, of course, a driver caught in the tangled and desperate dash to make the Chase. Winning a race in the final five of the regular season would be especially helpful.
Watkins Glen may just be the place. Busch tested the Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet at Watkins Glen a few weeks ago as part of the team’s four NASCAR-allotted testing periods.
“When we went there, we opened up Pandora's box with some braking issues and were able to master that by the end of the test,” Busch said. “I feel very confident heading back there -- not to just to have speed in qualifying but to have speed throughout the race.”
Incredibly, Busch’s team has reached a point this season that taking significant gambles to score race wins is done with much more hesitancy. A pile of consistent finishes has put Busch in his Chase contention spot, so don’t expect wild fuel mileage strategy or other tricks to snare a win.
Busch may not need it, either: He has three consecutive top-5 finishes at Sonoma, NASCAR’s other road course.
5. Mr. Five-Time Looks to be the “heat” at Watkins Glen
NASCAR’s five-time champion Jimmie Johnson has never won at five of the tracks on the current cup series schedule, including Chicagoland, Homestead-Miami, Kentucky, Michigan and Watkins Glen.
“I have knocked on the door a little bit and I’ve been a top five, top three guy (at Watkins Glen),” Johnson said. “I just have never been the heat there.”
Johnson thinks he’s closing in on changing the number to four. In 2012, he finished third while watching Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose scramble to the start/finish line on an oil-slickened track. It marked Johnson’s fourth career top-5 at the track.
“I’ve never been the dominant car. I hope to change that. I really enjoy the race track,” said Johnson, leader of just 11 laps in his career at Watkins Glen. “(...) But I’m itching to have that dominate car and get up there and race with Juan (Pablo Montoya) and the No. 9 (Marcos Ambrose) and hopefully have a shot at winning that thing.”
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller