Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – Road course racing has typically been a summer highlight reel for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and with Playoff hopes on the line, Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) should be another exciting chapter.
Last year saw the sport’s “Most Popular Driver” Chase Elliott – then 22-years old – pick up the first win of his series career – the fourth time in history a driver has earned his first trophy on the historic 2.54-mile course in upstate New York.
With the recent retirement of NASAR’s all-time best at Watkins Glen – five-time winner Tony Stewart and four-time winner Jeff Gordon – the competition has been even more wide-open and unpredictable. Only six current drivers – Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex – have won at The Glen previously. And only Busch has won multiple times – twice.
The placement of the race – with five races remaining to set the 16-driver Playoff field – puts even more emphasis on driver road course skills and team strategy calls.
None of the drivers ranked 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th in the standings – Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer – have won at Watkins Glen previously. Neither have the two closest challengers to the Playoff cutoff – 17th place Jimmie Johnson or 18th place Daniel Suarez.
Jones, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has a pair of top-10 finishes in his two starts at The Glen and is coming off his best showing – fifth place last year. At 13th in the standings, he holds a 39-point advantage over Johnson, and brings a three-race streak of top-five finishes into the weekend.
“The last few weeks we’ve really come on strong and the results have shown that each week,” said Jones, who earned a season best runner-up showing last week at Pocono Raceway.
“We’ll go to Watkins Glen and focus on finishing a few positions better than the last few weeks and hopefully get our first win of the season and lock ourselves into the Playoffs.”
Larson, the driver of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, has two front row starts at Watkins Glen and his Ganassi team is full of road course experience and expertise considering it also fields winning cars in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Series and the IndyCar series. Larson’s best finish is fourth in his first series start at The Glen in 2014. He was sixth last year. He holds a 37-point edge inside the top-16.
Bowyer, the driver of the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, has five top-10s in 13 starts at Watkins Glen. His best ever showing is fourth in 2013 and he added another top five (fifth) in 2017. He is the only driver among this group with a Monster Energy Series road course victory. He won at Sonoma in 2012. He is tied with Newman in the points standings – both drivers 12 points up on Johnson.
Newman, the driver of the No. 6 Roush-Fenway Racing Ford, has three top-10 finishes in 17 starts with a best showing of runner-up in his first Watkins Glen race in 2002. He did win the 2005 Xfinity Series race at the track. However, he hasn’t had a top-10 finish in the Cup event there since 2006.
XFINITY GOES ROAD RACING
The first of four upcoming road course events for the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Saturday’s Zippo 200 at The Glen (3 p.m. ET on NBC, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is always a must-see event pitting series championship contenders against Cup regulars and quite often against road course ringers just competing for the chance to win at the historic track.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano has won three of the last four races, but won’t be competing this weekend. Instead his Monster Energy Series teammate Ryan Blaney – who won last year’s inaugural ROVAL Cup Series race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course – will drive the No. 12 Team Penske Ford. Kyle Busch, who won this race in 2017, is entered for Joe Gibbs Racing, as is Cup rookie Ryan Preece, who will drive for JR Motorsports.
The current three top Xfinity series championship contenders certainly would like to stop the run of Cup winners, however experience at the track is not in their favor. Points leader Tyler Reddick has only one start at Watkins Glen – an 11th place finish last year. Both Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – in second and third place in the championship standings – are averaging a 9.0 average finish at Watkins Glen also in limited starts.
Reddick has never finished top-five on any NASCAR road course race. Last year, Bell was fifth at the Charlotte ROVAL and Custer was fourth at Road America. Custer’s best road course finish was a very dramatic runner-up showing to John Hunter Nemechek at the 2016 Bowmanville, Ontario NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race.
Justin Allgaier, who is ranked fourth in the championship standing is still looking for his first win of the season after a career best five wins in 2018. And the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet is a favorite on any road course. He has finished top-10 in the last five races at The Glen. Allgaier won two of the four road course races last year – at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Road America.
Austin Cindric, who is ranked fifth in the championship, is another driver bringing well-earned road course skills to the series. The driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford won the pole position at both Mid-Ohio and the Charlotte ROVAL races last year and finished runner-up at Mid-Ohio and third at the ROVAL.