The summer series of NASCAR racing has brought us rain, drama and of course road course racing. And with the two road-course races it is often a great time to develop momentum. The variety of tracks has changed through the years, but there has always been a predominance of flat tracks, which combines with the hot conditions of late June, July and early August and creates opportunities for drivers that like slick conditions.
This year has been different. With a large number of teams willing to roll the dice on risky pit strategy and some old school stories such as the one fantasy owners witnessed last week at Pocono, no one has been able to post consecutive top-10s in five races since the series left Infineon. Although, two drivers came close; Jeff Gordon has a worst finish of 11th and four top-10s in his past five races. Tony Stewart has a worst finish of 12th, but he only recorded two top-10s in his most recent five attempts, so momentum has come at a premium.
It has also been incredibly difficult to post back-to-back top-10s in that span of races. Prior to the Good Sam RV Insurance 500 at Pocono, only eight drivers were able to earn a top-10 on the heels of another since entering Daytona. No one was able to do that twice and no one posted three consecutive top-10s, so the ability to place-and-hold a driver has been lost. That finally seemed to change last week. Five of the top-10 finishers also finished that well in the Brickyard 400. Unfortunately, none of that will matter this week as the Series rolls into Watkins Glen for the second and final road race of the year.
The tale of two courses…
For most of the drivers in the field, the two road courses evoke similar responses. They enjoy the break from ovals, but most of them had little experience on this type of track before getting forced to compete on them in NASCAR’s top divisions. It is a classic fish-out-of-water tale that often ends badly. When drivers stay out of trouble — and that means staying on the pavement all day — a top-15 is well within reach.
While most drivers cannot tell the difference between the two courses, Watkins Glen is a much less technical track than Infineon. The high-speed portions are longer, the corners are a little more forgiving, and that allows them to hang the rear of the car out and fly around the track. That suits some drivers. For example, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been much better at the Glen than at Infineon, and there are some road-course ringers such as Ron Fellows that prefer this track to the one in California. On the other hand, Boris Said is often better at Infineon.
Still, the two tracks are similar enough for the largely uninitiated Cup regulars that fantasy owners can assume success at Infineon six races ago will also translate into similar success at Watkins Glen.
One would stay Tony Stewart should be the summer favorite just because he has always thrived in the summer months but this season proves different. Stewart is struggling to be a contender every week. But I wouldn’t count Stewart out just yet.
Marcos Ambrose did not live up to the hype at Infineon and never challenged for the win. But that could work in your favor this week if he slipped beneath your competitions’ radar. He has been as close to perfect at the Glen as a driver can be without winning. In his inaugural attempt on this track in 2008, he was forced to charge from the back after qualification was rained out and yet he finished third. Ambrose followed that up with a second in 2009 and a third last year, which makes him the only driver in the field with three consecutive top-fives. Combining Infineon, his worst finish in the past six road course races has been a sixth. That makes him a good value regardless of where he starts.
The Dark Horses…
Ahh, Kurt Busch makes a lot of noise. Last week, he re-flared a feud with Mr. Five Time and every fan knows that those two have no love lost and dislike one another greatly. Kurt Busch proved that he can beat Mr. Five Time as he won the nationwide race on Saturday. Look out…He is on a mission.
Despite entering the weekend with five consecutive top-10s at Watkins Glen, Carl Edwards is another driver that is largely overlooked on the twisty tracks. He also has the added benefit of entering the week with the points lead and four consecutive top-15s. The final reason to start him this week is his strong run at Infineon in June, where he earned a third-place finish, which gives him three top-fives in his past four road-course races.
When talking about Dark Horses, the segment wouldn’t be complete without talking about Kyle Busch. Kyle is known mostly for his rowdy and unconventional ways but; he knows when it is time to settle down and use finesse. Road courses require finesse and in 2008, he swept the two races on this track type for the only time since Stewart won back-to-back in 2005. That victory in 2008 is smack-dab in the middle of five consecutive top-10s at the Glen, but the reason he is relegated to dark horse status is because only two of those results were in the top five. Given his solid performance on the triangular Pocono Raceway last week with a lot of similarities to road courses, no one will be surprised if he contends for the victory, but the best prediction this week is that he will finish in the high single digits.
The Road Warriors….
The Warriors have not performed very well during the past couple of years, but they have to be considered. On occasion, they can stretch your salary cap budget in positive ways and provide a lot of bang for the buck. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ron Fellows can drive. He has five NASCAR victories at the Glen in Truck and Nationwide competition, plus another win at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The real question is whether his Tommy Baldwin-prepared entry can implement the right strategy to give the team track position late in the race. Dave Blaney has consistently finished in the low 30s or high 20s for most of the past 18 races, but this a great opportunity to get a top-15.
Boris Said can also be hit or miss in Cup competition. He will make his second appearance of the season in James Finch’s No. 51 and while his Toyota/Save Mart 350k showed glimpses of promise; he ultimately got into a shoving match he lost and finished 28th. On the other hand, the last time he was in a stock car, he won the 2010 Circuit Gilles Villeneuve race for Robby Benton and he has at least a 50-50 chance of finishing inside the top 15 alongside Fellows. And keep an eye on Andrew Ranger, who is making his Cup Debut.