NASCAR: Watkins Glen

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There are only five races to the Chase for the Championship remaining and many of the drivers outside looking in to the current top-12 in points will have to somehow utilize this week’s race on the road course at Watkins Glen to their advantage.

Many of the drivers don’t care for the road courses and some teams don’t even put any testing in to get their program ready for the racing like they do at all the other types of tracks.

There are only two road courses races a year so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put too much effort into the road racing programs, but it’s still two point races on a season that count just as much as any other race does.

With five races to go, those drivers who are fighting for position better start liking road racing or their season will be theoretically over.

Following Watkins Glen, the series rolls into four vastly different tracks to determine the final 12 drivers. We get a little wide open horsepower racing at Michigan, some bumping and banging at Bristol, then some high speed racing of the multi-grooves of Atlanta and finally culminating at Richmond’s unique track under the lights.

Currently, the only drivers I can see that have a real legitimate shot of making the Chase – who currently are borderline top-12 – would be the winner of the battle between Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin for the final position. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been hanging around with consistent, better than average runs, but comes nowhere close to be a weekly top-10 contender on the varied tracks. Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray have shown flashes of greatness, but not enough consistency to expect them to make a serious run.

The one driver who could make it interesting is Kasey Kahne just because of how he can distance himself with the others on the road course of Watkins Glen this week. Kahne has become quite accomplished on the road courses over the last two seasons. Prior to his win last year at Sonoma, Kahne had never even cracked the top-10 in any road race. He followed that great performance with a fourth-place finish at Sonoma this year.

Kahne still has never managed better than 14th at Watkins Glen, but we do know he’s excited about the chance to race on the road courses again just because of his recent success. Drivers who repeatedly say they hate road racing say so just because they don’t finish well. If David Reutimann could ever get a top-10 in a road race, he may change his tune a little.

Even though we lump Sonoma and Watkins Glen together as road courses, the two couldn’t be more different. The Glen is almost a half mile bigger with longer straight-aways and has less technical turns than Sonoma. The qualifying speed record is 30 mph faster at The Glen just to give some perspective. A less accomplished road racer can come to the New York track and run better than he could at Sonoma.

Jimmie Johnson was the perfect example of an inexperienced road course driver who managed quite well at Watkins Glen while struggling at Sonoma. Just because Johnson is greedy with his points and treats every race like those maximum points belong to him, he got better. He drove in sports cars in his spare time and asked questions to all the best road racers in the world to make him better in NASCAR, and it worked. Johnson has become quite the road racer over the last two seasons and it all culminated with his first ever road win at Sonoma in June.

Bettors who wanted Johnson in a road race could fetch prices of 20 to 1 and higher prior to this season, but now you can expect his odds to be right up there with the favorites just like he’s at every track. The cat is out of the bag; Jimmie is really good everywhere now. There won’t be double-digit prices on Johnson for a few years, he’s just too good. And now with his crew chief Chad Knaus locked up, there is nothing to slow Johnson down through his run as we have seen in the past from great drivers that tailed off, like Jeff Gordon who crumbled after his crew chief Ray Evernham left to form his own team.

The favorite for this race is Tony Stewart who has won five times at The Glen. His worst finish in his last six starts has been runner-up, which he’s done twice. He didn’t do anything special at Sonoma with a ninth-place finish, but somehow, he always manages to find his way around the course in August.

Marcos Ambrose will be leaving his current team after the end of the season which should cause some concern for those looking to play him this week. It’s hard to bet on a lame-duck driver, but it’s also hard to ignore that Ambrose may be the best road course driver in the series. He was ill-advised to save fuel at Sonoma while leading – even though his tank was full – and when he tried to re-start with only a few laps left while in a caution lap, his car wouldn’t start and he no longer was able to keep up with the pace car and lost positions. It may have been the dumbest call by a crew chief ever. That sixth-place finish in June was his worst finish on the road courses in two years. At Watkins Glen, Ambrose has finished third and runner-up the last two years. He’s hard to ignore, lame-duck or not.

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