Column: Time For NASCAR To Go Left & Right In The Empire State; A Watkins Glen Preview

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races the GoBowling at The Glen (Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at the historic Watkins Glen International in picturesque upstate New York this weekend – the second road course offering of the 2018 schedule. And it requires a decidedly different skill set and presents lots of opportunity in a season where three drivers have visited the vast majority of Victory Lanes.

The fact is, the road course races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule – at Sonoma, Calif. and Watkins Glen – have traditionally been dominated in the last couple decades by the likes of Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, who have combined for 12 wins in the last 25 races at Watkins Glen and won another nine at Sonoma during that time.

But all three of the those road course greats have retired now from Cup competition and the door is wide open for others to step up on one of NASCAR’s most exciting and unpredictable venues.

There have been eight different winners in the last eight Watkins Glen races. And there are only six active former winners in this weekend’s field – defending winner Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, A.J. Allmendinger, Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin.

Clearly, however, Truex has been the most recent road course ace and is seeking his third consecutive victory this week. He’s the defending winner at The Glen and won at Sonoma earlier this year. He has also led the most laps in the last three road course events – including a rare dominating performance (62 laps) for his Sonoma victory earlier this summer. He has finished every single lap in 12 starts at Watkins Glen.

“I raced go karts on road courses and always had fun learning the challenges of road racing,” Truex said. “I can remember the first time I raced at Watkins Glen. It was in a Busch North Series car. It took a while to figure out the track – it was crazy. I kept asking myself ‘How are these guys going so fast around here?’

“I have a lot of years of experience racing at The Glen. And right now I am with a great team which gives me all the pieces to be able to win races at different tracks. Hopefully we can go to The Glen this weekend and do it again. We know that a good qualifying spot is key. Starting up front sets the tone for the race.”

Only twice in the last 14 races has the winner started from farther back than seventh position. Kyle Busch is the last to win the race from the pole position (2008).

Truex’s No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota team may feel a little championship “tag-you’re-it” as the other two members of the dominant “Big 3” group – Harvick and Busch – have won the preceding two races coming to Watkins Glen. The mighty threesome has won nine of the last 10 races and all three have hoisted a victory at The Glen before.

HISTORIC OPPPORTUNITY

Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell isn’t only trying to maintain his Xfinity Series championship lead at Watkins Glen in Saturday’s Zippo 200 at The Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – he’s got a shot at NASCAR history.

A win Saturday for the 23-year old Bell would tie Sam Ard’s mark of four consecutive Xfinity Series victories and also tie a series rookie season record of five victories – putting him in elite company with Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch. And it’s just the first week of August.

First up, however, Bell fully concedes he faces a big challenge at Watkins Glen and the road course portion of the schedule in general. As excited as he is to be in position to win four straight, the former dirt racer acknowledges his first try at The Glen may be his biggest challenge yet.

“Definitely the lack of experience is huge, but for me in my past, shifting has been extremely difficult going into road course races,” said Bell, who drives the JGR No. 20 Rheem Toyota. “I don’t know if I’ve had a road course weekend where I haven’t blown a motor yet by missing a downshift or missing an upshift and accidentally downshifting. So that’s the No. 1 goal to get through the weekend without blowing a motor.

“It’s just so opposite of everything that I’ve done in my past, but I’ve really enjoyed the road races that I’ve done, especially at Canada. I feel like I’ve been fairly competitive up there. The only thing that’s hindering my confidence right now is just the fact that I was so awful at Road America last year. I really struggled at Road America last year, and that’s the only reason that I don’t feel like I could compete for the win this week.”

But, Bell acknowledged, he’s doing all he can to feel more comfortable at The Glen and he has every intention of upping his road course game.

“Just trying to get as prepared as I can be going into a racetrack where I’ve never been before, not only a racetrack that I’ve never been before, but going road racing, which is something that I haven’t had the most success at in the world,” Bell said. “Just trying to prepare for that and do as much homework as I can to try and get a good result this weekend.”

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