by M Roberts
After Saturday’s final practice sessions for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup series race at the road course of Watkins Glen, a few drivers have stood out over the rest with consistent spectacular times during both sessions.
The top road course practice times don’t necessarily produce the winner two times a year, but they do give a great indication of who should be running in the top-10 and at least compete for the win.
The star of the day was Australian Marcos Ambrose who was fastest in both of Saturday’s practices. After running 12 laps with the third best average speed in the first session, Ambrose came out in Happy Hour, ran the fastest laps, and then parked his car after only eight laps signaling that they were good to go for Sunday’s race.
Ambrose has run close to the same practice times In his last two Cup road course races, including this seasons Sonoma race, but this race will be the first time that he won’t have to start from the rear. Because of a great qualifying session, Ambrose will start fourth which surely help his cause to gaining his first career Cup win.
Despite his poor start position in the last two road races, Ambrose still managed to finish third in both. Considering that 16 of the 26 Watkins Glen winners have started within the top four, Ambrose practice times look all the more attractive in making him a top candidate to win this week.
Sunday’s pole sitter, Jimmie Johnson, was third fastest in the early session and second during happy hour. Johnson has never won a road course event among his 43 career victories, but looks to have his best opportunity ever. In all 15 of Johnson’s career road starts, he has never been so crisp and clean, while being so fast, during practice while maneuvering both right and left turns.
Kurt Busch impressed a lot of the teams in the garage with his practices on Friday and Saturday. Busch was fastest in the first session Friday and sixth in Saturday’s happy hour. In the first session Saturday,
Busch had the 12th fastest lap but ran the most laps with the second fastest average times. Between both sessions, no one ran more laps than Busch for the day which means the team should be dialed in for long runs, something road courses present more than most.
Busch has never won a road course race, but his start position at second coupled with his great two days of practice, and stellar long run times make him a great candidate to get that first road win.
Juan Pablo Montoya had a great day of practices coming in fourth quickest early and tenth during happy hour running 19 laps. His one and only career Cup win came on the road course of Sonoma, not to mention he is one of the hottest drivers on the tour.
The guy won Monte Carlo, come on, who can say that?
That accomplishment alone should separate status levels altogether. However, Montoya is playing the NASCAR points race at the moment and is very focused on the making the chase with only five races remaining. If it came push to shove late in the race, it’s likely Montoya makes that move to get the win, but the way the team has been talking, they just want a top five and the points that come with it.
Tony Stewart has the best seven year resume at Watkins Glen of anyone in track history. He had sluggish times on Friday, but came out solid with a 14th best early and then seventh fastest in happy hour. His four wins and two second-place finishes over that seven year span give him more clout for this race as a candidate to win than any of the top drivers in practice.
The key to race is likely to be who becomes the luckiest during their green flag pit stops. There should only be two stops required which means that someone who comes in early just before an ill-timed caution, which always seems to happen, will have position over those who haven’t pitted.
It’s such a long haul around the track that no one up front wants to be that guy stuck out late.
Look for early pit stops before their 30 to 35 lap possibility, and then trying to stretch out that final fuel stop to the maximum possibility to avoid being caught in a pickle. Easier said than done, but that looks to be the common strategy.
Based on the practices with the amount of laps run, drivers like Johnson and Busch stand out as ones who will be really good on that final stretch if in position.
Watkins Glen Top Happy Hour Speeds:
1) Marcos Ambrose 123.021 mph - AVG: 8 laps @ 122.556
2) Jimmie Johnson 122.483 mph - AVG 23 laps @ 121.614
3) Denny Hamlin 122.189 mph - AVG 20 laps @ 121.346
4) Carl Edwards 122.149 mph - AVG 19 laps @ 121.221
5) Boris Said 122.096 mph - AVG 26 laps @ 120.849
6) Kurt Busch 121.963 mph - AVG 26 laps @ 121.370
7) Tony Stewart 121.961 mph - AVG 22 laps @ 121.273
Saturday’s First Practice Speeds:
1) Marcos Ambrose 122.643 mph - AVG 12 laps @ 121.213
2) Sam Hornish Jr 122.379 mph - AVG 15 laps @ 120.890
3) Jimmie Johnson 122.335 mph - AVG 16 laps @ 121.614
4) Juan Pablo Montoya 122.317 mph - AVG 17 laps @ 121.169
5) Max Papis 122.267 mph - AVG 11 laps @ 121.130
Top Rated drivers far as candidates to win Sunday’s Watkins Glen race based on this weekend’s practice, past performances at the Glen, a mix of Sonoma, and current state of their team.
1) Kurt Busch
2) Tony Stewart
3) Jimmie Johnson
4) Marcos Ambrose
5) Juan Pablo Montoya
6) Kyle Busch
7) Jeff Gordon
8) Denny Hamlin
9) Kevin Harvick
10) Carl Edwards