With only five races remaining before the Chase for the Championship begins in the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, the drivers head to the northeast for the annual road course event at Watkins Glen International.
A few drivers will have a major edge in their quest to be one of the final 12 drivers chasing for the championship simply because road course racing isn’t universally popular throughout the garages.
We’ve already had one road course event this season at Sonoma Raceway in Northern California, won by Martin Truex, a driver who had never had a top-5 finish over his career there. Between the two road courses, Watkins Glen is a much easier course to drive on for those who typically struggle.
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Sonoma has elevation changes and is a much more technical course, while Watkins Glen’s 2.45-mile course has longer straightaways where the drivers can go full throttle.
The past two seasons, everyone has been chasing Marcos Ambrose at Watkins Glen.
Prior to winning in 2011 and 2012, the Australian road course ace had finished no worse than third in his previous three starts. His average finish at Watkins Glen over five races has been an amazing 2.0. Yes, that’s not a typo, 2.0.
There isn’t a driver on any track over that duration in the series who is better than what Ambrose does at Watkins Glen, which is why he is the overwhelming favorite to win again this week.
Ambrose is one of those drivers who uses Watkins Glen to his advantage and gains a Chase spot. It’s a real long shot, but still possible. He currently sits 22nd in points, seven points behind Jeff Burton for 20th, which is the deepest any wild card hopeful can be in to gain one of the two positions based on wins.
If Ambrose can win here, which is a strong possibility, and he can find a way to steal a win in one of the final four races, he’ll be in the driver’s seat for a wild card spot.
Jeff Gordon is a four-time winner at Watkins Glen and has been the most dominant road course racer in NASCAR history when including his five Sonoma wins. Gordon, currently ninth in points, is racing for his Chase life right now. He’s only three points ahead of Greg Biffle and eight up on Tony Stewart.
The reason Gordon can’t feel too comfortable yet is because he doesn’t have any wins on the season. Should he drop to 11th and not have any wins, he’d be passed up in the Chase by drivers with wins like Truex Jr. or Ryan Newman.
The good news is Gordon comes off a runner-up finish at Pocono last week and he also finished second at Sonoma in June. The bad news is Watkins Glen hasn’t been too nice to him over the years.
Since winning for the fifth and final time at the Glen in 2001, Gordon has failed to finish in the top-5 there. That’s a span of 11 races with his best finish being ninth in 2009.
Tony Stewart is a five-time winner at the Glen, the last coming in 2009. However, his last two starts there have been disappointing – the worst two-race stretch at Watkins Glen of his career with a 27th in 2011 and 19th last year.
Stewart’s got an edge to make the Chase because of having a win this year. More than anything, we should see Stewart’s competitive side come out and try to take back the crown Ambrose has worn as the series’ best road course driver.
One of the biggest performance discrepencies for a driver at Sonoma and Watkins Glen has been Brad Keselowski. At Sonoma, he’s got a 19.5 average finish in four starts, but at the Glen, he’s finished second to Ambrose the last two seasons.
Keselowski has to perform well this week if he’s looking to have any chance at being eligible for the Chase and defending his championship he won last season. He’s seven points behind Biffle for 10th place, but doesn’t have a win on the season.
Kurt Busch is doing the impossible by taking his single-car underfunded team to heights rarely seen in this era of NASCAR. He hasn’t won yet this season, but is sitting 13th in points, just 11 behind Biffle for 10th.
Busch has a 2010 Sonoma win to his credit, finished third there in 2011 and fourth in June, but Watkins Glen has been another story where his best result was second in 2010. His past two seasons there have seen him finish 38th and 31st.
Other drivers who have shown well at the Glen include Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Juan Pablo Montoya and Truex Jr. Points leader Jimmie Johnson tied a career-best third place last season, but is still searching for his first win on the track.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].