Mash The Gas: Watkins Glen Preview

AJ Allmendinger won last years Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen to capture a spot in the Chase. [Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]

Action is always tight and exciting at Watkins Glen. [Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series turns left and right this weekend as the series heads to the road course at Watkins Glen International for the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen on Sunday afternoon.

This is the second and final road course event on the schedule but unlike the circuit in Sonoma where the first road course event was held, Watkins Glen is a less technical and faster course.

NASCAR Sprint Cup road course races have been difficult to predict lately as well and with the number of races left to qualify for the Chase for the championship dwindling, the opportunity arises for a surprise winner. Some drivers are better road racers than others and this weekend represents their chance to shine and grab one of the Chase spots left. Pit strategy also comes into play more than ever on the road courses and it should provide for an intriguing race on Sunday.

Here are some drivers to watch…

Jeff Gordon (Dan Margetta)
A few weeks ago no one would have believed Jeff Gordon would be racing at Watkins Glen this weekend, but with Dale Earnhardt Jr. still sidelined, Gordon finds himself back behind the wheel this weekend at a place he owns four victories. However, lately Jeff Gordon has not had much success at the Glen as he has not had a top five finish since his last victory here in 2001. That could change Sunday as Gordon is still one of the better road racers and he enters this race in a fill-in role with little pressure. Jeff Gordon is listed at 25-1 odds this weekend and he makes his 800th NASCAR Sprint Cup start on Sunday. Gordon leads all other active drivers in road course victories with nine total and if Tony Stewart could pull off the win at the first road course race in Sonoma, why can’t Jeff Gordon repeat the feat this weekend at Watkins Glen? His road racing skills should come to the forefront this weekend and I think Jeff Gordon could be a driver to watch on Sunday.

Tony Stewart (John Wiedemann)
Tony Stewart captured the win in Sonoma, setting himself up for a spot in the Chase. Now, ready to run his final Sprint Cup Series road course event, Stewart is considered among the top contenders. Stewart statistics include 5 wins at Watkins Glen, an average finish of 11.44, ten top ten and seven top five finishes. His average running position is a series best 7.4 and he has the series best average green flag speed. So you know that Stewart knows the best way around the track, and his series leading driver rating seals the deal. Watch Stewart this weekend, he should be at the front of the pack. I’m picking Stewart to sweep the road courses and get his second win of the season.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Brad Keselowski has yet to win at Watkins Glen as well but does have three second place finishes and has become one of the better road racers on the circuit. Keselowski comes into this weekend at 10-1 odds and his Penske teammate Joey Logano won this race a year ago. A few weeks ago Keselowski crashed hard here in a testing run and he was critical of the challenges the road racing circuits present to the drivers. Brad Keselowski is pretty good at answering adversity with victories and I think there may be some extra motivation to conquer Watkins Glen this weekend from the #2 team. The team is solidly in the Chase and they don’t need to worry too much about points so look for Brad Keselowski to be in the mix on Sunday.

Kurt Busch (JW)
Kurt Busch is having a excellent season and quietly might just be the top driver running on the Stewart-Haas Racing Team. Kurt has always been a good road racer, but he has yet to find victory lane at Watkins Glen. Kurt is third in points scored this season, although that really doesn’t matter since he is set for the Chase with one victory. He just has been running consistently good this season. Busch has struggled a little over the last five races with two top ten finishes, but he had a streak of ten in a row prior to that. In Sonoma Busch finished 10th and I think you can expect another top ten this weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger (DM)
A.J. Allmendinger is one of the most accomplished road racing drivers in the garage and his only NASCAR Sprint Cup victory came here at Watkins Glen a few years ago. Allmendinger has struggled recently with results and has to have this date circled on his calendar as a prime opportunity to swipe a Chase slot. He is listed at 8-1 odds this weekend and also has an Xfinity Series road course victory at Road America. This is A.J. Allmendinger’s best shot at making the Chase and the team expectations have to be high coming into this weekend. It’s time for A.J. Allmendinger and the #47 team to step up and erase the bad luck that has plagued them the past month. Judging by road racing skill alone, A.J. Allmendinger should be one of the drivers to watch on Sunday.

Kyle Busch (JW)
Always a threat at a road course, Kyle Busch comes into this weekend with one mission – add to the win column. A two time winner at Watkins Glen, Busch is just looking for bonus points with just a few races left until the start of the Chase. Tied with Brad Keselowski with four victories and ahead of three drivers with two victories, those bonus points are going to be huge for the first round of the Chase. If anything goes wrong in those three races, it could be bonus points that allow a driver to continue to compete in the next round. Busch could very well get the victory this weekend and probably will be exciting as he works to accomplish that goal. The #18 will be a car to watch.

Paul Menard (DM)
If a 1000-1 long shot could win last weekend, Paul Menard, who is a pretty good road racer, sure could pull off a win from 60-1. Menard is my long shot pick this weekend as he is a very good road course driver that often flies under everyone’s radar. Menard won the Xfinity Series road course race at Road America last season and performance is on the team’s fore front lately as both driver and sponsor are in contract years with deadlines approaching. Menard’s new crew chief Danny Stockman guided him to that Road America win last year and he is back atop the box this weekend at Watkins Glen. The #27 team has performed better the last two weeks and they shouldn’t be forgotten at the road course at Watkins Glen this weekend.

Kyle Larson (JW)
With a fifth and sixth place finish in the last two races, Kyle Larson is making a late charge up the standings to try to make the Chase. Without a win though, the opportunities are becoming limited. Chris Buescher got the victory to get in the Chase and if he can climb in the top 30 in the point standings there will only be four wild card spots left. The road course race this weekend opens the possibility that another first time winner could drop the wildcards down to three. Larson is just out of the Chase picture by nine points behind Jamie McMurray. Larson finished twelfth at Sonoma and has a fourth and a twelfth place finish in two career races at Watkins Glen. If he can match those finishes, he could bump into the Chase at the end of this weekend.

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