With five regular-season races left, drivers on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoff bubble are on edge, ready to strike when given the opportunity. Sunday's Go Bowling At The Glen, held at the winding road course of Watkins Glen, New York, is one of their last chances to reach victory lane and secure a spot.
A short race (just 90 laps) and a variety of pit strategies should provide them with a golden opportunity. Indeed, the last seven races held at the Glen have produced seven different winners. That group is a mix, filled with postseason locks like Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and last week’s Pocono winner, Denny Hamlin. But it also includes three drivers whose first career NASCAR win came at this racetrack: Marcos Ambrose, AJ Allmendinger and Chase Elliott.
So chances are, if there’s one more Justin Haley-type surprise lurking around the corner before the postseason, we’re about to see it. There’s plenty of candidates ready and waiting for a breakthrough, too. Daniel Suarez, who started his NASCAR Drive For Diversity career in nearby Buffalo, has two straight top-5 finishes at this track. A victory here could secure his long-term future at Stewart-Haas Racing along with a playoff bid.
William Byron, eighth here last year, watched teammate Elliott break through. A third Hendrick Motorsports driver, Alex Bowman, earned his first Cup victory a month ago at Chicagoland Speedway. Can the talented sophomore follow in their footsteps?
Lastly, there's Matt DiBenedetto, potentially fighting for his job at Leavine Family Racing with Christopher Bell in position for a Cup Series promotion come 2020. The longtime underdog made a big-league statement with a career-best fourth-place finish at NASCAR’s first road course of the season, Sonoma Raceway. Can he find a way to make lightning strike twice considering Toyota's recent strength?
They'll all need to stop Truex, entering the race as the sport’s best road course competitor. He's won three of the last five races on right-turn tracks and had a fourth, at Charlotte’s Roval, erased with a last-lap spin not of his making. Teammate Busch will be looking to reclaim that mantle; he’s gone four-plus years without a road course win.
Either way, the shortest race of the season (220.5 miles) will come down to how and when drivers pit. A 50-lap final stage means there’s just one green-flag stop if the race winds up going caution-free. Crew chiefs have won here on everything from short-pitting to fuel mileage; expect a few more aggressive moves in Sunday's race.
The other four tracks left on NASCAR's regular-season schedule (Michigan, Bristol, Darlington and Indianapolis) don't quite have the same number of variables. There's an opening here to capitalize and all the playoff bubble drivers know it. So don’t be surprised to see a spicy ending after a snooze-inducing start to the road course season out in Sonoma.
Go Bowling At The Glen
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday, Aug. 4)
Track: Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, N.Y.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's victory last week at Pocono, one of his best career tracks reminded everyone there are more than two championship contenders at Joe Gibbs Racing. It's easy to forget about his season with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch running circles around the NASCAR competition most weeks.
But this 2019 Daytona 500 winner now has two other victories to his credit through 21 races. That's tied for the most wins he's had since 2012, the last time Hamlin seemed like a top-tier championship contender. New crew chief Chris Gabehart has jumpstarted this team from being stuck in neutral and don't forget, this year's playoff tracks match up well with Hamlin's strengths.
Who's at the Back: Chase Elliott
What is happening with the No. 9 team? Elliott now has three DNFs in his last six starts, easily the worst stretch of his NASCAR career. His last top-10 finish was nearly two months ago, causing him to plummet from third to eighth in the standings. Elliott's led just seven laps during the slump and taken a step back in speed compared to some of his Hendrick teammates.
The plus side is he's guaranteed a playoff spot courtesy of an April win back at Talladega. I'm sure there's also some experimentation happening as this group looks to tinker heading into the playoffs. But there's also danger in staying off your game too long; you don’t know quite how to get back on the horse until it’s too late.
Jimmie Johnson's first Cup Series crew chief, Chad Knaus, stuck with him for 16 years. The second? It lasted just 20 races. Engineer Cliff Daniels was named as Johnson's new crew chief this week, replacing Kevin Meendering who was reassigned within Hendrick Motorsports. Daniels was the race engineer for Johnson's championship run in 2016 and had rejoined the team in that role back at Sonoma. The man he replaced, Meendering, seemed to be making progress, but three straight runs of 15th or worse sealed his fate. Johnson currently sits 12 points outside the playoff cutline as his streak of making every playoff in NASCAR’s postseason era remains in serious jeopardy.
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series driver Spencer Boyd is out indefinitely due to injury. The driver has an unspecified back problem that worsened considerably after the race at Pocono last week. Landon Huffman filled in for Young’s Motorsports at Eldora Thursday night.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. reemphasized he won't be going anywhere anytime soon. In an interview this week, Stenhouse revealed he's signed with Roush Fenway Racing through the end of the 2021 season. It's the only team he's driven for in his seven-year career at the Cup level.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Laps led this season by fan favorite and 2018 Daytona 500 runner-up Bubba Wallace through 21 starts.
Laps led by Wallace's best friend Ryan Blaney, the most by any driver in Cup this season who hasn't won a race.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It’s hard to argue against Martin Truex Jr. and his recent road course success. But Kyle Busch may have the more consistent track record over the long term. He's gone 12-for-14 on top-10 finishes at Watkins Glen throughout his career; one of those misses came in his rookie year (2005). Busch has an average finish of 4.5 here in his last four starts and is hungry to get a road course win back on his resume.
Another hungry driver is Joey Logano after wrecking out at the start of last year's race. Logano has an ugly recent history at the Glen but has also won here (2015); he’s got five career top-10 finishes in 10 starts.
Daniel Suarez and William Byron, mentioned in the intro, are solid bets to turn in quality performances. But they're not the only ones under the gun on the playoff bubble. Erik Jones has an average finish of 7.5 at the Glen and has been red hot as of late (three straight top-3 finishes). He's hard to bet against at this point.
An unlikely road course success story that's cheap? How about Aric Almirola? He has yet to score a top-10 finish at the Glen in eight career starts but raised eyebrows with a top-10 run at Sonoma back in June. Maybe he's finally learning the ropes?
Matt DiBenedetto, hands down. One fourth-place finish combined with a shocking fifth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two weeks ago has his No. 95 team coming into its own. Will they be able to take the next step?
A definite longshot, Parker Kligerman enters the weekend running for a part-time Toyota team in Gaunt Brothers Racing. But he ran a surprising 22nd with this group last year considering their limited resources; I expect he'll do so again. Sometimes, simply staying out of trouble at a road course is all you need to bring home a respectable performance.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch has 5/2 odds entering Watkins Glen, edging out teammate Martin Truex Jr. (7/2) despite Truex's recent track record. Last year's winner Chase Elliott sits behind them at 10/1.
What I Think
I’ll go with Daniel Suarez, continuing the surprising trend of winners as of late. But if he falters? I'm afraid it's hard to stop Martin Truex Jr. right now on a road course.
— 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.