NASCAR Cup Series goes to Watkins Glen

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The 22nd race of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule takes us to Watkins Glen International for the only race of the season in New York. It will be the second of three races on road courses in 2019, which is always a welcome change from a season filled with oval tracks with drivers constantly making only left turns.

Part of the fun is watching some of the drivers struggle to make right turns. It sounds ridiculous because they’re all professional drivers, but the learned skills start when they’re young and many of the drivers — mostly from the south — didn’t race on road courses. Most of them learned their craft on short dirt or paved tracks going in circles while others grew up racing karts on small road courses requiring right and left turns. The few drivers in NASCAR that are really good on the courses have kart racing in their blood from childhood.

I absolutely love road course racing because those big and bulky stock cars are put through a major stress test. In IndyCar and Formula-1, those cars are feather-light and built for turning with the best suspensions in the world. In NASCAR, it’s a completely different story and they have to change the balance of the car and they only do it for three races a year, so the crews aren’t exactly at their sharpest with the set-up, either.

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All those factors of unfamiliarity help create some fun television, and most of all, we get a break from the ovals. It’s a pleasant change, at least for me.

However, there are plenty of NASCAR fans that don’t like road course races because there’s not much passing. In the June race at Sonoma Raceway, there were only seven lead changes among five drivers and Martin Truex Jr. led three times for 59 of the 90 laps and won by 1.8 seconds. On paper, it looks like a snooze-fest, but I don’t remember it that way.

While we lump road courses together as a group, the tracks of Sonoma and Watkins Glen couldn’t be more different. It’s almost as abstract as Daytona’s 2.5-mile high-banked layout to Martinsville’s falt half-mile track. The distances are relatively the same with Watkins Glen being a 2.54-mile, eight turn course, but Watkins Glen is much faster with longer straightaways compared to the technical course at Sonoma. The top qualifying speed at Sonoma was 95.712 mph by Kyle Larson while last years pole winner at Watkins Glen was Denny Hamlin at 125.534 mph.

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Hamlin is a good look this week coming off his win at Pocono, his third win of the season and 11th in 21 races for Joe Gibbs Racing. He won at Watkins Glen in 2016 and paid out at 50-1 odds for his only road course win. But he’s been close in several other road races leading laps in six of his last eight starts on them. He has turned himself into a great road racer after struggling on them for his first nine years in the Cup series.

Hamlin was fifth at Sonoma in June, but the thing to like about him most the week is the race package the Cup Series is using with engines producing 750 horsepower and no aero ducts, a package very similar to what they used last season everywhere.

He is the only driver this season to have top-five finishes in six of the seven races using this package. And his last race with it was his best when he was runner-up at New Hampshire two weeks ago leading 113 laps. A JGR driver has won five of the seven races using this race package.

JGR had all four of their drivers finish eighth or better at Sonoma, including three of the top-five. They are crushing the series weekly. At times last week at Pocono using the other race package they were running 1-2-3-4.

Truex, the winner of three races with this package, won at Sonoma, Kyle Busch was third and Hamlin fifth. It seems to be that way every week on any kind of track with any kind of race package.

Both Truex and Busch have four career wins each on the road courses with Truex being the dominator lately on them. He’s won three of the past five road course races and has led laps in his last seven starts turning right and left.

He is, right now, the elite of all racers on the courses now that Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart have retired and Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya have gone elsewhere. He learned on the fly, too. Although, his first form of racing as a kid was with karts in New Jersey.

Other drivers to pay attention to this week are Clint Bowyer and Kurt Busch who are tied with Kyle Busch for the most top-fives on road courses with 11 each. Brad Keselowski has fared much better at Watkins Glen than Sonoma over his career. He’s been runner-up three times and was third in another. His Penske teammate Ryan Blaney has shown skills on the roads and has been at his best with this week’s race package.

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