What do Australian Marcos Ambrose and Californian A.J. Allmendinger have in common? Their only career NASCAR Cup Series victories came at Watkins Glen International.
Ambrose is long since retired but the ‘Dinger hopes to repeat history Sunday with his second win at the track in the last five years. Enduring a difficult season with the No. 47 JTG-Daugherty Racing Chevrolet, an upset here is likely his only hope to sneak into NASCAR’s postseason. Winning a stage at Sonoma, it’s clear this veteran still has the speed at right-turn tracks to get it done. The ‘Dinger just needs to cut down on self-inflicted mistakes like a missed shift in that race which led to a busted transmission.
But there’s a long list of drivers rooting against him this weekend, topped by Hendrick Motorsports. Alex Bowman, recently signed to a contract extension at HMS has the most to lose with an Allmendinger victory. He sits on the bubble in the 16th and final playoff spot, 51 points behind seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson for the next spot up on the ladder. But he’s also 56 points ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard, some breathing room with five races remaining in the regular season.
If Bowman keeps clicking off top-11 finishes, there’s no one who’s going to catch him. The No. 88 team has earned five of them in the last six races including two after a potential bubble-bursting crash at Kentucky. HMS has suffered through a difficult 2018 but Bowman makes three of their four drivers (add Johnson and Chase Elliott) in position to make the playoffs.
It’s a win by Allmendinger that would throw all that out the window. It pushes Bowman right out of the playoffs, left in the awkward position of needing to catch one of the sport’s all-time greatest drivers. And did I mention Johnson needs a 2019 sponsor? Missing the playoffs could affect negotiations and cost the team money down the line. While unlikely for Johnson, either scenario creates a no-win situation for HMS.
Allmendinger’s not the only one who can pull off a potential upset. Daniel Suarez was third here last August and sits 96 points behind Bowman. It’s almost certainly win-or-bust at this point for a No. 19 Toyota team hurt by two restrictor plate wrecks. Heck, even veteran Matt Kenseth can’t be ignored. Road courses tilt more toward driver skill, allowing Kenseth to shake off the subpar equipment Roush Fenway Racing has been providing.
But most likely, it’s Allmendinger who the field will be watching Sunday in perhaps the last regular season race an underdog can break through. Can JTGD provide a late-round postseason shakeup and best the dominant trio of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.?
“In the end, I can just do my best,” he said. “I’ve come here and put a lot of pressure on myself. We all know what the ultimate goal is when we show up here. I think over the past couple of years it’s gotten a little bit more difficult. I think the field is spread out more. This year, we’ve seen the three fastest guys are usually the three fastest guys every weekend. It doesn’t matter what track we go to, unfortunately they’re good everywhere.
“As a whole, in the series, we’ve got to catch up to them. So, I just come here and do my best and try to get everything I can out of it.”
35th Go Bowling at The Glen
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, N.Y.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
Sure, Kevin Harvick had the fastest car at Pocono. But it was Kyle Busch ready to take advantage when Harvick’s pit road contact with teammate Aric Almirola cost the No. 4 Ford its track position. Behind him, pole sitter Daniel Suarez came home a career-best second while Denny Hamlin led five laps at one of his better tracks. All four JGR cars (add Erik Jones in fifth) came home inside the top 10, the first time that’s happened since Phoenix back in March.
Who’s at the Back: Brad Keselowski
Team Penske’s lone championship driver is going through his worst slump of the season. A Pocono wreck was his second DNF in four races, extending a winless streak that dates back to Talladega last fall. A great qualifier, Keselowski now has seven straight races where he’s qualified inside the top 10 but just once during that stretch has he finished better than he started. A net loss of 101 positions leaves the No. 2 team and Paul Wolfe going back to the drawing board on race day setup.
Nationwide has extended their sponsorship of the No. 88 team and Hendrick Motorsports in a multi-year agreement.The contract puts to rest any concerns the company would bolt after former Most Popular Driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. retired at the end of last season. The 20-race per season deal also was paired with a contract extension for driver Alex Bowman; Bowman is now signed through 2020.
A bizarre civil trial with former NASCAR racer Greg Biffle is underway down in North Carolina. Biffle’s ex-wife and her mother are suing him, claiming he secretly videotaped them using hidden cameras in his home on Lake Norman. Biffle then supposedly showed that footage to third parties; the driver denies the allegations. Nicole Lunders and her mother are seeking over $100,000 in damages.
NASCAR hit two teams with additional penalties after Pocono’s inspection debacle. The teams of Kevin Harvick and Kasey Kahne lost 10 driver and owner points, respectively after their cars failed pre-race inspection multiple times. They were the biggest offenders on a weekend in which 13 cars failed post-qualifying inspection and were forced to start at the rear of the field.
A.J. Allmendinger will pull double duty this weekend, driving the No. 23 GMS Racing car in theXFINITY event for GMS Racing.Regular driver Spencer Gallagher, meanwhile, will make his Cup Series debut for the No. 23 of BK Racing currently up for sale in bankruptcy court. It could be a potential test drive for them as GMS crew chief Mike Beam is among the bidders looking to acquire the BK operation.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Wins for Kevin Harvick at Pocono in 36 career Cup starts. It’s one of just two tracks (Kentucky) where the driver has yet to earn a NASCAR victory.
DNFs for Corey Lajoie in just 12 starts with TriStar Motorsports. That’s tied with Brad Keselowski for most in the series even though Lajoie is running a limited schedule.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Each one of the big three (Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch) has a win at Watkins Glen. But among that trio it’s Busch who has the most consistent track record. Other than a 40th in 2014, Busch has 11 top-10 finishes in his last 12 starts at the winding road course up in western New York. Twice, he’s won while earning an admirable average finish of 9.8.
Looking to go off the beaten path? 2016 winner Denny Hamlin used to struggle here but he’s earned two top-five finishes in a row at this track. Add in the strength of JGR last weekend at Pocono and the No. 11 team might be positioned for a late summer surge. Keep in mind one of his best tracks, Bristol, looms later this month.
The above-mentioned JGR momentum comes at a perfect time for Daniel Suarez. It’s now or never for the No. 19 bunch when it comes to the NASCAR playoffs; they were third last year here in a race where Suarez won a stage and led 14 laps.
Jamie McMurray won’t win here this weekend but he’s earned four top-15 finishes in the last five Watkins Glen races. The No. 1 team flashed some speed at times last Sunday and has three straight top-20 finishes.
Allmendinger, Allmendinger, Allmendinger. Everyone will be gunning to put the No. 47 on their roster but there’s a good reason why: a win and three top 10s in his last four races running the No. 47. Keep in mind, too, that in a league with limited starts you’d almost never want to use A.J. Allmendinger anywhere else.
Looking for an alternative? Michael McDowell was 17th and 12th in his last two starts here driving for Leavine Family Racing. He’s with a different team this year, Front Row Motorsports, but still has the talent to put together a top-20 run.
What Vegas Thinks
No surprises here. Kyle Busch leads the pack with 3/1 odds followed by Kevin Harvick at 15/4 and Martin Truex Jr. at 4/1. A.J. Allmendinger, by the way sits at 20/1.
What I Think
Allmendinger’s team throws their heart and soul into this race. But I’ll go with Kyle Busch to win two in a row as the speed of the big three is just too much.
-- 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)