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Go Bowling at The Glen (Watkins Glen) NASCAR Preview

Go Bowling at The Glen - Watkins Glen International

It's still Chase Elliott's race to lose at Watkins Glen ... but there are plenty of drivers taking aim at the points leader with the NASCAR Cup Series playoff race heating up.

In August 2018, Chase Elliott broke through for his first NASCAR Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen. Despite leading the final 34 laps of the race, it was a nail-biter until the end, holding off a late charge by Martin Truex, Jr. while nursing his No. 9 Chevrolet to the finish on fuel.

Four years later, the road to victory on road courses still runs through Elliott. Nowhere is that clearer than WGI, where Elliott won the pole for Sunday’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET, USA Network), a track he’s finished no worse than second at since that masterful performance.

“This is always going to be a special place to me,” Elliott said of the Glen, “Because achieving that first win was such a big deal for myself, our team and I think to our entire group. It’s always going to be a special spot whether we do well or not. It will always feel different.”

Elliott hopes to add a fifth victory this season, boosting his playoff point total to 30 as he looks to create some more breathing room over the rest of the postseason field. All but guaranteed the regular season points title and the additional 15-point bonus that comes with it, all that’s missing from his resume is a bullet point that’s typically a guarantee by midsummer: a road course victory.

“We just want to improve,” Elliott explained, shrugging off his 0-for-4 start on this track type in 2022. “Especially when you go somewhere, you think you’re off a little bit in a certain area and you want to move forward. You never want to go backwards; so as long as we’re moving forward, I think we’ll get to where we want to be.”

The hope is Elliott’s enthusiasm and positivity rub off on the rest of Hendrick Motorsports. All four HMS cars qualified inside the top 11, including 2021 Watkins Glen winner Kyle Larson. Larson is hoping to stop a victory drought that stretches all the way to Auto Club Speedway back in February; the reigning Cup champion has gone from winning 10 races last season to just one in 2022.

The slump is even worse for William Byron and Alex Bowman, HMS drivers who between them haven’t scored a single top-5 finish since Dover Motor Speedway three months ago. While playoff berths are guaranteed for both, these early-season title favorites are in desperation mode to reestablish momentum with the Round of 16 close at hand.

That feeling permeates to other Cinderella stories in the Watkins Glen field, like Michael McDowell (starting 3rd) and Chris Buescher (7th). Both men have had success on road courses this year and are looking to pull a major upset, becoming a record 16th winner this season and squeezing out any chance for a Cup driver to make the postseason on points.

That, of course, puts Martin Truex, Jr. and Ryan Blaney in the spotlight, two drivers sitting inside the top 5 in points and driving for the sport’s premier teams. But both men haven’t shown any speed this weekend, qualifying in 25th and 26th place, respectively. Separated by just 26 points for that final spot, they’ll be waging a battle amongst themselves with drivers ahead of them looking to steal the win – and their postseason bid along with it.

And did we mention the sport’s sudden international flavor? A two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion, Mike Rockenfeller, makes his NASCAR Cup debut this weekend along with a former Formula 1 champion in Kimi Raikkonen. In all, seven countries are represented, from Russia’s Daniil Kvyat to Mexico’s Daniel Suarez in what’s the most diverse field in recent NASCAR history.

It’s all jam-packed into one of the shortest races of the year, a 90-lapper that hasn’t featured more than two caution flags beyond the typical stage breaks since 2018. Expect the action to be fast and furious as the winding down of this NASCAR regular season brings with it a sense of urgency.

Go Bowling at The Glen

Date: Sunday, Aug. 21
Time: 3 p.m. ET
Track: Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, N.Y.)
TV: USA Network
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup

Who's at the Front: Kevin Harvick

From 0-for-65 to 2-for-2? That’s Kevin Harvick for you, recharging his career at age 46 by earning his second straight Cup win last weekend at Richmond Raceway. Harvick lived up to his nickname as The Closer, surging to the front and leading the final 48 laps as his car’s handling peaked during the race’s final stage.

Harry Gant was nicknamed Mr. September after winning four Cup races in a row at age 51. Is Harvick the sport’s new Mr. August if he somehow pulls off three straight? It’ll be a tall order after qualifying a disappointing 24th; Harvick’s lone Watkins Glen victory came some 16 years ago (2006).

Who's at the Back: Chase Briscoe

A potential top-5 run for Briscoe at Richmond was thwarted when a fire sparked underneath his car during the final stage. Knocked back to 23rd, it became the 10th straight race this March winner at Phoenix Raceway has finished outside the top 10.

That’s made the Cup sophomore the biggest beneficiary of Kurt Busch’s Pocono injury last month. Without it, he’d be left on the bubble and in position to get knocked out of the postseason if, say, Truex and Blaney were to somehow win the final two regular-season races.

News Briefs

Ty Gibbs remains the substitute for Kurt Busch in the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota as Busch announced he’ll sit out the remainder of the regular season. Busch, who’s been sidelined since crashing in qualifying at Pocono Raceway, claimed “the time is just not right” to return from his concussion and is putting all efforts into returning for the postseason at 100 percent. The 2004 Cup champion, who won at Kansas Speedway back in May, is guaranteed a playoff bid unless two new drivers above him in points win the final two regular season races.

Ryan Blaney has signed a long-term contract extension to remain at Team Penske. Blaney, 28, has driven Penske’s No. 12 Ford to six wins since taking the helm in 2018 and is currently second in the Cup point standings to Chase Elliott. Teammate Joey Logano is also expected to re-sign with the organization in the coming weeks.

Aric Almirola refuted a report this week that claimed he’s chosen to unretire and drive the No. 10 Ford for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2023. Almirola claimed a final decision has not been made amidst rumors Smithfield and SHR have convinced the 38-year-old to remain in the car. Both Almirola and Cole Custer had also been rumored to give up their seat to Kyle Busch if the organization lands the free agent two-time Cup champion for 2023.

NASCAR by the Numbers

116
Lead (points) for Chase Elliott in the regular season with two races remaining. He’ll capture the regular-season title no matter where he finishes if Ryan Blaney fails to win at the Glen.

53
The gap between Corey LaJoie and 30th-place Ty Dillon in the Cup standings. LaJoie, who could be a contender to win the pack race at Daytona in the regular season finale, must be inside the top 30 in points to be considered postseason eligible.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

First, first, second, pole for Sunday? After the last three races at the Glen, I don’t care what it costs to put Chase Elliott in your lineup. Get the No. 9 in there.

Toyotas have struggled on road courses this year, posting just one top-10 qualifier this weekend (Kyle Busch) to lower their salaries. But Denny Hamlin, starting 22nd, looks like a diamond in the rough. Earning four top-5 finishes along with a victory in his last five Watkins Glen starts, even a top-10 effort would produce plenty of position differential points and a handful of fastest-lap bonuses.

Related: Best Watkins Glen International Drivers for DraftKings

Middle Tier

Chris Buescher is getting hot at the right time. After challenging Kevin Harvick for the win at Richmond, Buescher’s third-place finish leaves him with plenty of momentum for a road course race he’s plenty capable of winning. The June Sonoma runner-up starts seventh and will need to be borderline spun out of the way to fall any lower all afternoon.

AJ Allmendinger remains hungry for a road course victory in 2022 after getting bumped out of the way on the last lap by Ross Chastain at Circuit of the Americas in March. Starting sixth, position differential points are limited but you need to have the potential winner in your lineup, right? Remember, the ‘Dinger earned his first career Cup victory at this track in 2014 and is a perpetual top-10 driver here.

Lower Tier

What about all these international stars? I’d put money on Finland’s Kimi Raikkonen rocketing up from his 27th-place starting spot into at least a top-20 finish. He’s driving for a Trackhouse Racing Team that already has two road course victories this year, one for each of their full-time drivers in Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez. Getting backed by that top-tier effort should help Raikkonen minimize any missteps in a shorter sprint race that’ll remind him of Formula 1.

Another American surprise? Joey Hand. Starting 17th, Hand has been knocking at the door of a top-10 result throughout the season, finishing a career-best 20th at Sonoma in June. And with only a handful of pit stops expected, Watkins Glen minimizes the disadvantage of being paired with an underfunded team in Rick Ware Racing. This road course ringer could finally find himself in position to get over the hump.

What Vegas Thinks

The vegasinsider.com odds have Chase Elliott sitting at +500 while Tyler Reddick, winner of the last two road course races, sits close behind at +600. Defending winner Kyle Larson is next up at +900.

Think Chris Buescher can sneak up on ‘em and steal the victory? He’s the best longshot pick at +2500.

What I Think

It's Chase Elliott’s race to lose. If he slips up? Chris Buescher creates more postseason chaos by wheeling the No. 17 RFK Racing Ford into 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 tbowles81@yahoo.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.