Quite the week. Jeff Gordon pulls off the rain-shortened victory at Pocono, the horrific aftermath of the storm which shortened the Pocono 400, and Dodge pulls out of NASCAR completely. As the weather moved in to Long Pond, PA last Sunday, our hero “SuperG” made some crucial decisions and worked to get themselves to the front, avoiding a near-catastrophic wreck off a re-start, to end up leading when the rains came. Many will say that a rain-shortened win is not a win, but for NASCAR officials, it’s still good. Needless to say, a rather diverse group of drivers in the top ten of the finishing order, with Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr, Brad Keselowski, and Tony Stewart in the top five, and Ryan Newman, Carl Edwards, Clint Bowyer, Regan Smith, and Marcos Ambrose rounding out the top ten (click here for a video recap). Dale Earnhardt Jr maintained first place in the NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) points battle, but lost a lot of ground to positions two through four, as Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, and Jimmie Johnson are less than ten points behind.
And while many have likened Pocono Raceway similar to a road course after its repaving project, we’re on the real deal this weekend at Watkins Glen International Raceway (WGI) with the Finger Lakes 355 at the Glen, a ninety lap, 220.5 mile (355km) run around its eleven turns, where teams and fans alike will get used to the eleven turns, run-offs (areas around a turn where the drivers can slide out into to maintain speed), and deal with the only track where the crews pit backwards (in other words, the drivers enter the pits clockwise around the track, and fuel the vehicles on the RIGHT side, not the LEFT. With a significant decrease in the “Road Course Warriors” that plagued the track in years past, this race will likely only see one, in the form of the ever-controversial Boris Said (Said-Heads BE READY!!). NSC competition has had so many road course races, that most competitors have become quite adept at navigating the left and right turns, plus the backwards (i.e. clockwise) race flow. We’ll see what the final road course race, number twenty-two of the thirty-six race NSC season, will hold…only five more races until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins!
The broadcast day for the Finger Lakes 355 begins at 10am EDT with NASCAR Raceday on SPEED, NASCAR Countdown on ESPN at noon EDT, with the race broadcast on ESPN starting at 1pm EDT. Kirt Manwaring, Elmira NY native and former MLB catcher will give the Command to Fire engines, with nearby Ithaca native and NHL Stanley Cup Champion Dustin Brown waving the Green Flag at approximately 1:18pm EDT. There were lots of wrecks in Saturday’s Zippo 200 at the Glen, so expect a lot of hot tempers and a number of cars put into the fence…that, alongside the expected number of drivers who don’t quite navigate a corner and get themselves into the fence.
Best Bets: Multiple road course wins endemic with my BB’s this week.
Jeff Gordon (#24 Drive to End Hunger Chevy)- Jeff is coming off a huge win from last week’s rain-shortened race at Pocono. This was the shot in the arm that he and his team needed. Currently 13th overall in NSC points, he took over the second Wild Card spot from Kyle Busch with that win. He now stands to put ALL FOUR of the Hendrick Motorsports teams in the Chase, since teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr (#1 in points), Jimmie Johnson (#4), and Kasey Kahne (#11 but with two wins) seem to have their positions locked in. Gordon has four wins, six top-five, and nine top-ten finishes here, and although only placing in the top thirteen in two of the last four WGI races, he’s been no worse than tenth in the last four road course races. Big Daddy has also been sixth highest in NSC points earned in the last four road course races. Something tells me he’s back, and this weekend could prove it. He’ll start twelfth, and was sixth-fastest in final practice.
Marcos Ambrose (#9 Stanley Tools Ford)- The “Tasmanian Devil” is in full mode this weekend. He won this race last year, and wants to repeat. In the last four races at the Glen, Marcos hasn’t finished worse than third, and has been no worse than eighth in the last four road course races. He’s also first in points earned in the last four races at the Glen, as well as the last four road course races. A single win, four top-five, and four top-ten finishes shows Marcos’ got this track wired. He’ll start from the fifth position Sunday, and was fourth-fastest in final practice.
Probables: Two fierce road course competitors in this week’s Probables.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Keso put on a show Saturday, but came up a bit short to Carl Edwards in the Nationwide race Zippo 200 with a runner-up finish. Missing this race last year due to his ankle injury (which gave rise to his run of wins that eventually put him in the Chase), Brad has been consistently putting up good races, and might actually surprise spectators Sunday. He’s only been thirteenth-highest in points earned in the last four road course races, and only has a top five finish to his name here (granted, he’s only been racing here a few years). Keselowski will start fourth, and was eighth-fastest in Happy Hour Practice, so he’ll have a little work to do. But I’m guessing Brad will be a player when the Checkered Flag waves.
Juan Pablo Montoya (#42 Target Chevy)- JPM scored his second consecutive Coors Light Pole Award this week, breaking the Glen track record with a time of 127.020 mph. While not a great performer at Sonoma, he’s managed to finish no worse than seventh in his last four races at the Glen, including a win here in 2010. Montoya’s currently second-best in NSC points earned in the last four outings at WGI, and also second in the last four road course races. A single win, two top-fives, and four top-ten finishes rounds out his Glen resume. He’ll lead the field to Green, and was second-fastest in final practice. Only risk is the mechanical issues and wrecks he’s been plagued with so far this season, so picking Juan for the win (like Kyle Busch), might be a big roll of the dice.
Dark Horses: A few additional drivers you may want to keep on the radar scope, as they’ve been known to find their way to Victory Lane here at Pocono.
Martin Truex Jr (#56 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota)- Truex Jr, while seemingly not going to be back with Michael Waltrip Racing next season, still wants to put some “W’s” in the books. He’s worked his way up to fifth in the NSC points standings, and continues to put up good numbers when the Checkered Flag waves (he finished third last week). Martin’s been no worse than fifteenth in three of the last four Glen races (including a P4 and P5 finish), and has been tenth in points earned at WGI over the last four races. He starts in ninth, but was fifth-fastest in Happy Hour practice. Could be the sleeper this weekend.
Tony Stewart (#14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevy)- Smoke is on a mission. He’s currently sixth in the NSC points standings, after having struggled most of the season (points standings-wise). Five wins, seven top-fives, and ten top-tens here at the Glen tells me Stewart can negotiate the turns, and with his runs at a couple local tracks in Upstate NY this weekend, he’s probably the driver with the most driving time over the course of the weekend. Smoke’s fourth highest in points earned in the last four Glen races, but only fourteenth in the last four road course outings. He was runner-up in 2008 with a win in 2009, but didn’t place in the top twenty-five the last two years. Stewart’s got his work cut out for himself, considering those last couple of years’ finishes. He’s up front in seventh when the Green Flag drops Sunday, but was only thirteenth-fastest in Happy Hour. Good chance he’ll be up front, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he were further back in the pack.
As for the other contenders, keep an eye on Carl Edwards (won the Nationwide race Saturday), Kyle Busch (qualified second and won final practice, yet has been plagued with many accidents recently), and Jimmie Johnson (starts third and seventh-fastest in final practice). They could end up in front with a little luck. But each has their own “demons” at the Glen, considering in one case, the amazing crash Jimmie Johnson had many years ago, heading straight into the SAFER barrier yet walking away unscathed.
Speaking of luck, Dale Earnhardt Jr may have a tough time holding on to the top spot in the NSC standings this week, as road courses have never been his favorite. While he qualified sixteenth with an eleventh-fastest final practice run, he’s the big wild card this week. If his pit crew is on their game, a mediocre run on the track, combined with a lightning-fast pit crew, could set him up for a top-ten finish, and further reinforce his standing at the top of the NSC points race with only a handful of races to go.
Rumor Mill: Triumph and tragedy this week…
Lightning Strikes, and not in a good way- With the rains that came last week at Pocono, the stands emptied fast. But it was not without incident. There were numerous lightning strikes, high winds, and heavy rains that plagued the track, catching many fans and teams unaware. A total of ten fans were affected by the lightning strike. Nine of them were treated and released, with one losing his life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the victims and their families alike. (Pocono Raceway via Jayski.com)
Dodge Ball- Dodge announced this week that they will pull all participation in NASCAR at the end of the 2012 season. While only Roger Penske currently runs any Dodges in Cup competition, he intends to move back to Ford next year. Ralph Gilles, head of the Dodge Motorsports program, said on Tuesday that they were dealt a blow when Penske announced they were moving to Ford in 2013. Gilles commented that this announcement by Penske “kind of caught us by surprise and we never really recovered.” (NASCAR.com) This will leave only Chevrolet, Ford, and Toyota as the manufacturers in NASCAR’s top three series.
An Upstate Tradition at the Glen- This week’s race at the Glen will feature a couple of Upstate NY staples: food and beverages. The catering company handling the concessions this weekend is capturing a number of culinary specialties from the Finger Lakes Region and nearby, including western NY’s Beef on Wick, Sahlen’s Smoke House Dogs, and the VERY popular Dinosaur BBQ sandwiches from Syracuse. Having grown up in Upstate NY, I’ve enjoyed many of them; they’re a real treat!! (TheGlen.com). Another Upstate staple, Genny Light Beer, will grace the hood of the #87 Chevy of Joe Nemecheck Sunday; Genny Light, along with its sister beers Genesee and Genny Cream Ale, have been produced at one of the country’s longest-standing breweries (founded in 1878)…it’s good to see an additional “beer wagon” on the track. (Jayski.com)
There’s only a 20% chance of rain for the race, and hopefully it’ll be a typical Upstate NY summer day: warm, sunny, with not a lot of humidity. And for those fans who think there should be a road course race in the Chase, don’t expect it to happen any time soon. The Glen may be the best place to have that race, but track officials are not only refusing to move the date, but any race in Upstate NY after Labor Day risks significantly poor weather. There have been days in October when they see snow up there. Not thinking that would make for a good Chase race (and those proponents of rain tires, DO NOT even think about mentioning SNOW tires).
So Sunday will be the time, Watkins Glen will be the place, and we’ll see if the drivers behave, or if some are intentionally put into the SAFER barriers. Stay tuned to your your local Motor Racing Network affiliate, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Channel 90 (and keep an eye out for drivers’ channels on Sirius XM as well!), or ESPN for all the action. And as usual, you can always follow me on Twitter (@Speedglutton) for my race updates, news, and rants.
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