Surprise, surprise. As NASCAR heads to the second and final road course race this season, fans and observers have been reminded of how anyone that starts a 40-car race can wind up a winner.
Rookie Chris Buescher rolls in fresh off a Pocono win that was gift-wrapped by both pit strategy and Mother Nature. A driver who had never led a lap in Sprint Cup before Monday, someone whose best finish was a mere 14th, foiled a long list of top-tier contenders by sneaking out front at the right time before the rains came. Suddenly, his Front Row Motorsports team could be on the verge of making the Chase even though they’re one of the sport’s most woefully underfunded teams.
For Buescher to do so, he’ll need to crack the top 30 in points; he currently sits 31st, eight behind David Ragan for a spot in the playoffs. Will another surprise name join him in the bubble conversation? Watkins Glen offers another great opportunity for upsets. Here are the last five winners at the Glen, in order: Juan Pablo Montoya, Marcos Ambrose (twice), Kyle Busch, AJ Allmendinger and Joey Logano. Two of those have been Chase contenders on a yearly basis. The other three?
Two of them don’t even drive in the sport anymore while the Glen remains Allmendinger’s only career Cup win.
Keep that in mind this weekend while both watching the race as a fan and setting lineups. For guys like ‘Dinger, Casey Mears, even a Clint Bowyer they know Sunday marks a golden opportunity to make the postseason. Buescher’s win reminded them that yes, miracles do come true and it’s worth it for these middling teams to take chances. At a place like the Glen, where short-pitting is common and the track puts outcomes back in the driver’s hands, there’s a chance for them to make a breakthrough.
“You never know.” That’s what Buescher taught us. And in a sport that’s been all too predictable at times it’s an important phrase to have sitting in your corner.
2016 Cheez-It 355 at The Glen
Time: 2:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Watkins Glen International
TV: USA Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Tony Stewart
Buescher could be the most surprising postseason participant this fall, replacing Stewart, but the sport’s retiring three-time champion is attaching a new label to his Chase candidacy: title contender. Four top-5 finishes in the last six races, spurred by that Sonoma victory have the No. 14 team now thinking they have the consistency to advance deep into the playoffs. Stewart, despite missing eight races this season, sits 27th in points, just 12 behind Aric Almirola, who has run a full season in well-funded equipment.
If you project Stewart’s point total over a full season, he’d find himself solidly inside the top 10. The 45-year-old is giving all he has, reaffirming his choice to retire in November this week and is clicking with his team at the right time.
Who’s at the Back: Aric Almirola
Two years removed from a Chase appearance, Almirola has struggled this season. Second to last (39th) at Pocono, he’s now earned just one top-15 result in the last 17 races while plummeting to 26th in the standings. His team, Richard Petty Motorsports, spurned a stronger alliance this season in order to build their own chassis in-house. Long-term, they feel it’ll make them a better, independent program but in the short term that’s made them perhaps the most disappointing team overall this season.
Martin Truex Jr. has found a long-term home at Furniture Row Racing. As expected this week, Truex signed a two-year contract extension that keeps him in FRR Toyotas through the end of the 2018 season. Bass Pro Shops will up their backing of the No. 78 car, taking over primary sponsorship for 16 of 36 races next season. Truex, the laps led leader on the circuit this year (see below), has won two races with the team along with making the Chase final four at Homestead last November.
Now that FRR has their primary car under wraps speculation mounts as to whether they’ll have a second team next year. Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez have been rumored for the seat as Joe Gibbs Racing looks to move up their developing talent into a Cup ride; Jones is expected to get the nod this Sunday with sponsorship coming from 5-Hour Energy.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. met with the media on Friday to discuss his recovery from the concussion-like symptoms that have sidelined him and said while he was feeling better there is still no timetable on when he will return. Jeff Gordon, making his 800th career Cup start this weekend, will continue to drive the No. 88 in his place. Owner Rick Hendrick, for his part, has said “doctors will guide us” on the right time and place to put NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver back behind the wheel.
The Olympics will trump NASCAR this weekend as the games in Rio have forced NBC to move their coverage to sister networks. The XFINITY race on Saturday will be aired on the network’s business channel, CNBC, while the Cup race on Sunday moves over to USA Network. It’s the first time USA will have covered NASCAR since a little-known deal to air the Duels at Daytona (then 125-mile qualifying races) back in the early 1980s.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led by Martin Truex Jr. this season. He’s the first NASCAR Cup driver to go over 1,000.
Laps led by Denny Hamlin since winning February’s Daytona 500. Hamlin, who led 95 laps in the season-opening race, has only posted five additional top-5 finishes since then.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
For a red-hot Kyle Busch, Watkins Glen comes at the right time. He’s got nine top-10 finishes in his last 10 races there, was second in 2015, and finished a solid seventh at Sonoma in June. With the type of speed Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas are showing everyone it’s hard to envision any sort of drop-off.
For Brad Keselowski, his No. 2 car also matches his recent showings on this road course. He has three career runner-up finishes at the Glen, from 2011-13 and was seventh in the race last year. After a vicious testing crash a few weeks ago Keselowski is looking to rebound in a big way; this Sunday may give him that chance.
Earning an average finish of 8.0 in his two Cup starts at the Glen, Kyle Larson will be one to watch. Even teammate Jamie McMurray is a solid option, although the No. 1 team has experienced feast or famine here the last six years: four top-20 finishes have combined with two results of 39th or worse. For Larson in particular, this weekend is especially important to keep him on the right side of the Chase bubble.
Greg Biffle, whose Roush Fenway Racing team has improved significantly, boasts four straight top-16 finishes at the Glen. The type of driver who’s going to avoid trouble, Biffle should sneak up the road course running order when you least expect it over the final few restarts of the race.
Like we said in the intro, plenty of options here. AJ Allmendinger, aside from winning two years ago, has a career average finish of 10.1 at the track. Keep in mind, though this team has a “win-or-bust” mentality for Sunday so starting him comes fraught with some risk.
Clint Bowyer, driving for HScott Motorsports, has three top-10 finishes in his last four Watkins Glen races. The No. 15 car suffered from electrical problems at Sonoma but lightning rarely does strike twice for Bowyer on road courses. Other popular options include Casey Mears, Michael McDowell and Danica Patrick (yes, that Danica Patrick). Patrick’s run 21st, 20th and 17th in her three starts at the Glen so it’s not a bad desperation option if you need one.
Finally, beware the Jeff Gordon trap at the Glen. Sure, Gordon’s had a ton of road course success but his last top-10 finish at this track came way back in 2010. His last three finishes there? Try 36th, 34th and 41st. Ditto for Boris Said, a road course ringer popular with the fan base but a guy who, at age 53 hasn’t produced a top-15 result here since 2007.
What Vegas Thinks
Vegasinsider.com has a three-way tie at the top, putting Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick at 6/1 odds for Sunday’s race. Chris Buescher, who set a NASCAR record by winning with 1,000/1 odds Monday, is currently listed at 500/1 as he tries to go back-to-back.
What I Think
After a few months of knocking on the door, it’s Kyle Larson’s time. Road courses tend to produce surprise winners and after a run of recent consistency it’s time for the third-year driver to have his breakout NASCAR Cup moment in Victory Lane.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photo by ASP Inc.)