Saturday, August 7, 2010

More Accomplished Road Racers Means More Competition For Stewart at The Glen

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International could be one of the more competitive races we’ve seen on the 2.45 road course over the last 13 seasons. Just by looking at the wide array of unusual’s who had quality practices Friday and by witnessing Jimmie Johnson win at Sonoma in June, almost anything looks to be possible Sunday.

To say that a race at Watkins Glen will be competitive really is going out on a limb because it’s a yearly case of the same results. Of all the tracks on the currently tour, there hasn’t been one dominated quite so easily by such a small pool of drivers. Over the last 13 years, it’s basically been the Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart show. The road course aces have won nine of the races during that span.

While Jeff Gordon has tailed off a bit on his road course mastery -- thanks to Stewart -- Stewart is in the midst of a tear having finished no worse than runner-up in six straight Watkins Glen races. Since 1990, only three drivers have sustained that type of consistency over six straight races and none have done it for six straight seasons. The other drivers did over the course of three to four seasons at tracks that race two times a year.

Today’s drivers are getting better on the road courses each time out with many of them coming up through the ranks having spent some of their early years in go-karts or open-wheel racing, as opposed to years past when most of the NASCAR drivers grew up in the south driving strictly on ovals.

As these drivers have gone through a maturation process in the stock cars, Stewart has still been dominating. But there does look to be some hope out there this week for someone to knock off the giant at his top track. While Stewart won the Watkins Glen race last year, we have seen the last four winners at Sonoma be first time road course victors.

Juan Pablo Montoya’s win in 2007 Sonoma win came with little surprise since he did win at Monaco, but then Kyle Busch won followed by a real surprise in Kasey Kahne, and then culminating with the Johnson win this year.

Kahne had never come close to sniffing a road course top-10 prior to last season’s big Sonoma win and then he followed it up this year with a great fourth-place run. Jimmie Johnson had done all he could to get better on the road courses by racing on any type sports car series he could during his off time and it worked. He crossed Sonoma off his “Bucket List” now leaving him with only four tracks left to win at, one of which remains Watkins Glen.

Another driver making things interesting is someone Johnson should thank for gift wrapping the June Sonoma win. Marcos Ambrose had Sonoma all sewn up and then made a costly error by shutting the car off to conserve fuel during a caution. The car didn’t restart immediately and Ambrose lost several positions because he didn’t keep up with the pace car.

That mistake cost Ambrose his first career Cup win, but he’ll back with a vengeance this week at a track he does better than most at having finished runner-up and third in his only two Cup starts. He’s fresh off a Watkins Glen three-peat in the Nationwide series with his win Saturday and Sunday will be his last real chance to win for JTG Daugherty Racing as he will be leaving the team following this season.

We also have past Cup road race winners like Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon that are always a threat, but the drivers who stood out better then normal in practice are the reasons for believing the competitive balance may shift for Watkins Glen the way it has at Sonoma. Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Kurt Busch all looked terrific in Friday’s practice.

The Roush duo was very impressive in practice and qualifying with Biffle topping the charts in both of Friday’s practices and Edwards pole sitting for the first time ever in a Cup road race. Biffle has been getting better on the road courses having a career best finish of fifth in last years race at The Glen and then followed that up with a solid seventh-place finish at Sonoma in June. Edwards has had success in the Nationwide series road course events and has a career Cup average finish of 8.8 at Watkins Glen. Following Biffle’s big win at Pocono last week to stop the Ford winless streak in 2010, the Roush drivers look better than ever to get ailing owner Jack Roush his first Watkins Glen win since 1995 with Mark Martin.

Kurt Busch was a standout Friday and Saturday, but has never had any consistent success at Watkins Glen over his career. Last year’s seventh-place finish was the best he’s ever done. This week he’ll be using the same chassis that finished 32nd at Sonoma in June, but that poor finish isn’t the true measure of the car. Late in the race while climbing to the front and in fifth, Jeff Gordon punted Busch while trying to pass around the tight turn 11. No wonder Busch blew up in a press conference Friday calling the Hendrick “pretty boys” out a week after Johnson punted Busch at Pocono. Look for Busch to handle things on the track with a great run. Also, if the No. 24 or 48 get too close, odds are Busch takes justice and the law in his own hands just as NASCAR has said they will allow.

That may one of the reasons to stay away from both Johnson and Gordon this week. For Gordon, his problems rest more with just not having a very good car. He was 30th and 39th in Friday’s practice, the worst ever seen for a Gordon practice on any road course. He did qualify better on Saturday, but the only reason anyone could bet on Gordon winning this week is just because of his nine career road course wins even though it‘s been four years since he‘s won at any of them. His last win at Watkins Glen was in 2001. Chances are that even if Busch wanted to retaliate, Gordon may never be close enough up front to return the favor.

We lump in Sonoma and Watkins Glen together because they are the only road courses on the Cup schedule, but as far as road courses go, they couldn’t be more different. Sonoma is a much more difficult, technical track while Watkins Glen runs much faster with long straightaways. It’s surprising that Sonoma would be the track that has had four straight first time road winner since The Glen is more about the horsepower of the engine and less about the driver’s skills.

The speed differential between the two tracks is nearly 30 mph at lap which in many ways explains how the top drivers from the top teams, like Gordon and Stewart during their runs, have fared so well at Watkins Glen. Give the top road race driver some horsepower and the rest of the field is in trouble if he gets out front. It looks like this week there are quite a few teams -- up to 13 drivers -- that could give Stewart a run for his money this week.

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