In a season full of unpredictable winners, NASCAR’s race in Watkins Glen this weekend offers perhaps one last chance for a Cinderella. With five regular season races left on the schedule, this winding road course has a history of surprise endings, late-race contact, and pit strategy dictating the outcome.
No wonder why it’s a race where attendance is rarely a problem. Sellout crowds the last two seasons have seen Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin earn their first road course victories. Before that, surprises like AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, and Juan Pablo Montoya slipped through for their lone highlight in otherwise invisible seasons.
As the playoff pressure heats up, men like Allmendinger know that Sunday provides their last, best chance to make the postseason. Meanwhile, Logano has seen his year go off the rails, an encumbered win at Richmond in April putting a potentially fatal knife into championship potential. With making the postseason on points near impossible, can he drum up the magic that got him to Watkins Glen Victory Lane two short years ago?
There are other strong road course drivers who could use the “win and you’re in” lock the playoffs provide. Clint Bowyer has won at Sonoma in the past and has put together a quiet, consistent season with Stewart-Haas Racing. Jamie McMurray and Matt Kenseth, while never winning on a road course have shown great improvement at right-turn racing here as of late. And who can ever forget the looming presence of Dale Earnhardt Jr.? As Twitter might say, “It’s the final chance to see Dale Jr. run a road course in his full-time Cup career. Let that sink in.”
(Earnhardt has never won at a road course in a Cup car).
Bottom line is this unpredictability makes the Glen one of the can’t-miss races every season. That mix of driver diversity, quality competition, and pit strategy keeping the “boring” parts interesting is a formula the sport wishes it could replicate too many other places in the Cup Series these days.
I LOVE NEW YORK 355 at The Glen
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Watkins Glen International (Watkins Glen, NY)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joe Gibbs Racing
After an ugly start to the season, Toyota’s top outfit is heating up. JGR chassis took six of the top nine spots at Pocono Raceway in a race dominated by Kyle Busch. Busch finally cashed in on a season of near misses, winning his first race of the year and first ever at Pocono. That finally validates his 1,114 laps led, second on the Cup circuit to Martin Truex Jr.
But the strength of JGR runs deeper than Busch and the satellite team of Truex, rookie Erik Jones and Furniture Row Racing. Daniel Suarez now has seven top-10 finishes, leading all freshmen and is the top candidate for Rookie of the Year. Matt Kenseth, while still winless, looks poised to lead the No. 20 Toyota into the playoffs and Denny Hamlin has five finishes of fourth or better in the past seven races. They’re peaking at the right time.
Who’s at the Back: Kyle Larson
Through the first 15 races this season, Larson had just one finish outside the top 25. Over the past six weeks? He’s got four. No wonder why Truex took back the points lead and is pulling away. A disappointing 33rd at Pocono after mechanical issues was the latest in a long string of setbacks for this Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Sure, there’s two runner-up finishes in here but in those races, Larson led a grand total of just one lap. There have been two DNFs for wrecks, at Daytona and Indianapolis, and more problems with NASCAR inspection which can’t help but catch up to the No. 42 team over time.
Is Kurt Busch a free agent or not? Reports this week detailed that Stewart-Haas Racing is not picking up their option on Busch for the 2018 season. That would make the former Cup champion a free agent in what’s become a crazy game of driver musical chairs in this garage. But after those reports went viral, SHR sent out a tweet saying they expect Busch to still be in their car for the 2018 season. The future of Monster Energy as the primary sponsor for the program remains uncertain as well. Busch, who won the Daytona 500 in February, has had a difficult season since in which the No. 41 Ford has led only six laps all year.
Small team BK Racing and Gray Gaulding were in the news this week with a special report that detailed their contract dispute. BK claims Gaulding, despite being their driver, owes them $1.36 million due to a deal Gaulding’s company, GGR Enterprises, had to bring the team sponsorship. Owner Ron Devine’s nickname “Gauldashian” went viral while other, more negative storylines surrounded the team started circling. A report by NBC Sports later in the week claimed a tax lien had been filed on BK Racing which muddied the financial waters of the organization even more.
Tragedy struck NASCAR nation this week when former Cup Series owner Harry Scott died at the age of 51. Scott’s teams made 189 starts at the sport’s top level, posting four top-10 finishes and hosted Clint Bowyer last season before his move over to Stewart-Haas Racing. Scott suspended operations following the 2016 season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
The most laps led by anyone (Matt Kenseth) this season without cashing in on Victory Lane.
Average start for Jamie McMurray this season, by far the best of his career. While McMurray hasn’t won a pole, those qualifying efforts have translated into 11 top-10 finishes, on pace for his highest total in that category since 2004.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
There aren’t many “must starts” in road course racing these days. Veterans like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Juan Pablo Montoya, and Marcos Ambrose have either retired or moved on to other forms of racing. That’s what makes Kyle Busch all the more important for your roster. Busch, who has four career road course victories, has 10 top-10 finishes and two wins in 12 career Watkins Glen starts. It’s an astounding top-10 ratio of 83.3 percent with a large enough sample size that ensures last week’s winner is a sure bet to contend.
Looking for a dark horse? Don’t stray far from Joey Logano (still top tier in some leagues despite a difficult season). Logano needs that victory to make the playoffs and his last four starts at the Glen have produced an average finish of 4.0.
Jamie McMurray has quietly become much better at road racing. He was eighth at the Glen last year, much better than his average finish of 19.7 there, and then was 10th at Sonoma back in June. While issues at Pocono last week brought him closer to the playoff bubble on points than he’d like to be, expect the No. 1 Chevy team to fight back strong over the course of this weekend.
Don’t sleep on Matt Kenseth either. His career road course woes could make him a cheap price in certain DraftKings or salary leagues. But Kenseth was 10th at Watkins Glen last year, has the support of JGR road course experts around him, and is feeling that final push to make the postseason.
It’s now or never to start AJ Allmendinger despite his boom-or-bust history at the Glen. The 2014 winner of this race has run 24th and fourth since; aggression could make him a little risky. But overall, an average finish of 9.4 in eight career starts make you feel like he’ll recover just enough for your team if he swings and misses on a win.
Meanwhile, how about Michael McDowell? Like the little engine that could, his underfunded single-car effort has pulled together four top-20 finishes in six races. He’s run 20th and 17th at the Glen the last two years and the Leavine Family Racing team has learned to make the best of what they have.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have 4/1 odds to win Sunday’s race. Brad Keselowski is next up at 8/1.
What I Think
In a season full of surprises, I’m going to go way off the grid. Jamie McMurray, using track position and late-race pit strategy, shocks NASCAR Nation and picks up a first career road course win.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.