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Earnhardt looks to exorcise road course demons at Watkins Glen


Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s road-racing disdain, Chase-qualifying opportunities for AJ Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose, as well as the performances of Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick highlight Sunday’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.

1. Earnhardt more favorable of Watkins Glen despite road course disdain  

Matt Kenseth got to see firsthand just how much Dale Earnhardt Jr. dislikes road course racing when an out-of-control No. 88 stuffed his No. 20 into the barrier at Sonoma in June. Earnhardt, never shy to admit what he thinks is a lack of immense personal skill on the non-ovals, kept up this week his disdain for the twice-annual schedule aberrations.

“Stock car racing is based on cars driving in circles for hours,” Earnhardt tweeted in a reply. “Guess I’m too honest sometimes.”

Fortunately for Kenseth and the rest of the field, Earnhardt feels a bit more positive about Watkins Glen. The most recent Sprint Cup winner likes the higher speeds and fewer tight corners of the Watkins Glen layout.

“Sonoma is a much more technical track and a lot more challenging for me as a driver,” Earnhardt said in a release this week. “When we run the Glen, it’s straightaway then turn, straightaway then turn. I think I can be more of an asset to (crew chief) Steve (Letarte) and help him with the car more so than I can at Sonoma.”

Earnhardt’s best Watkins Glen finish was third in 2003.

2. The last Chase chance?

AJ Allmendinger was fourth-fastest in the first Friday practice at Watkins Glen ahead of what could arguably the most important race of the season for his JTG-Daugherty team. The road course serves as Allmendinger’s best remaining chance to nab an unexpected win and, by default, an entry to the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

It’s all about grabbing a win to get in, thanks to NASCAR’s new playoff field first selecting race winners before reverting to point standings to fill the 16-driver lineup. Second place doesn’t much matter.

The same goes for Marcos Ambrose, the two-time Watkins Glen winner (2011, 2012), who is trying to join teammate Aric Almirola as a 2014 race winner. Both struggled at Sonoma in June – the last time that the Cup Series visited a non-restrictor plate track that serves up more equal team footing than most.

Aside from the road course experts – that’s what we’ll call Allmendinger and Ambrose – a former champion with a road course prowess may look at Sunday as the most golden of remaining Chase-entry opportunities. That former champion, of course, is winless Tony Stewart after a Pocono wreck basically sealed his chance to race in to the championship fight via the point standings.

3. Jeff Gordon mediocre, at best, since last 2001 Watkins Glen win  

Don’t believe the hype. Or something.

Sprint Cup points leader Jeff Gordon will get plenty of talk ahead of Sunday’s race. His late 1990s streak of road racing dominance in Sprint Cup created a shadow that has long clouded his abysmal finishes at Watkins Glen since his last win there in 2001.

Gordon, making his 22nd start at the Glen Sunday, won four of five races at the road course from 1997 to 2001. Since, he’s notched only a pair of top 10s and has an average finish of 22nd. There was even that near-miss in 2007 when he spun in Turn 1 while leading comfortably with two laps to go. Brutal.

Gordon was second at Sonoma Raceway in June – creating a tempting predictor of success as the series returns to making left and right turns. But Gordon’s Sonoma success has been much consistent than Watkins Glen with two wins and 12 top 10s since 2001. The lack of translated success illustrates one point: while both are road courses, both tracks are substantially different.

4. Road course qualifying – not strategy – more important to Sunday success

Qualifying in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series is important every week. But starting up front at Watkins Glen may prove the most telling of any track for end-of-race success – in spite of the notion that unorthodox pit strategy is how teams can get to the front at road course races.

Of the 21 tracks on the current Cup schedule, Watkins Glen holds the distinction of having the lowest “worst start to win” record. Steve Park set that mark with his win from 18th in 2000. No one has ever done it at Watkins Glen from further back, and the Sprint Cup worst-to-first average among all tracks is 26th.

Qualifying well at the road course typically bears out a good finish even without taking the checkered flag. Just two drivers who started inside the top 5 in the last five races (Marcos Ambrose in 2013 and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2012) have failed to finish. The remaining 23 top-5 starters have an average finish of sixth.

Strategy? It will play a role Sunday. But it probably won’t matter as much as what happens during qualifications on Saturday.

5. Harvick fast in pursuit of second Watkins Glen win  

It’s been eight years since Kevin Harvick scored his only Cup-level road course win on a road course. He did so at Watkins Glen after leading 28 laps in the 2006 race and in the first Friday practice session, he looked to have a car capable of recording career road course win No. 2.

Harvick paced the session with a lap of 68.652 seconds – an elapsed time some three-tenths of a second faster than second-place Jimmie Johnson. The lap speed also broke Marcos Ambrose’s 2013 single-lap track qualifying record.

Nabbing a win Sunday would mark Harvick’s third of the year and put a nice cap on a summer stretch filled some highs and lows for the first-year No. 4 team. From Dover in June to last week at Pocono, Harvick scored two runner-up finishes mixed with three finishes of 20th or worse. The roller coaster stretch slowed Harvick’s rapid ascent in the point standings – he needed just five races to jump from 26th to 12th in points in the spring – but also flashed plenty of signs that the Stewart-Haas operation will be strong when the Chase begins.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Witter: @GeoffreyMiller

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.