The 22nd NASCAR Sprint Cup race of the 2016 season takes us to Watkins Glen International for the second and final road course race of the year.
It’s quite a pleasant change to see drivers make both right and left turns after watching them drive in circles in all the other races. Some drivers thrive on the courses and have a decided edge every time out while others can’t wait for the weekend to end and move on back to the traditional tracks.
The first driver we need to talk about as a candidate to win is Tony Stewart, the winningest driver ever at Watkins Glen with five victories in 15 starts. In June, he punched his ticket into the Chase by winning at NASCAR’s other road course in Sonoma, which was his eighth career road course win, second behind Jeff Gordon’s nine wins for most in NASCAR history. His 11.09 average finish in 33 career road course starts is tops in the series – Gordon has a 13th-place average.
Stewart missed the first eight races of the season due to a back injury caused by a recreational off-road accident prior to Daytona Speedweeks and when he returned he was sluggish and a bit apprehensive. When the Sonoma race came around, he was still in the midst of mediocrity and I didn’t even consider him a real contender to win just because he wasn’t the typical Stewart I had seen from years past.
But as soon as that victory came, his first since 2013, all of a sudden he seemed to have his competitive juices flowing at full throttle again. He no longer seemed to be dragging emotionally from his role in the death of driver Kevin Ward in a non-NASCAR sanctioned Sprint race in 2014.
The win brought out a more tenacious Stewart, just like the old days. His Sonoma win was his first top-five of the season, but then he went on to finish fifth at Kentucky, second at New Hampshire and 11th at Indianapolis. Yep, those look like finishes from classic “Smoke.”
Now just because Stewart won at Sonoma doesn’t mean he should be a favorite to win this week. Despite both being labeled road courses, Watkins Glen is a much faster track with long straights compared to Sonoma’s technical course featuring elevation changes.
The pole winning speed at Sonoma in June was 95.77 mph by Carl Edwards. Last August at Watkins Glen it was A.J. Allmendinger at 127.83 mph. That’s a huge differential.
But now we have Stewart on his best track with a car that looks to be similar to teammates Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch. He’s got his mind set straight and he’s hungry as ever for more wins with hopes it leads to his fourth career Sprint Cup Championship in what is his final season. Getting 10/1 odds or higher on him is a good play in his new state of mind.
Others that have fared well at Watkins include Edwards, who has never won there but has an 8.4 average finish in 11 starts. Allmendinger captured his only career victory at the Glen in 2014 and this week is his only legitimate shot to make the Chase by winning.
Kyle Busch has won twice there over his career and was runner-up last season. Brad Keselowski has been runner-up three times and his teammate Joey Logano won last year for the first time on a road course.