Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Watkins Glen Storylines: Jeff Gordon Back in the Mix

Gordon's 86th career win came with perfect timing (Getty)   
No counting out Jeff Gordon. The four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion appeared destined to miss this year’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ as recently as June when he ranked outside the top-20 "wild card" eligibility list.

No longer. Gordon posted career victory No. 86 at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, climbed to 13th in points and ousted Kyle Busch from the second provisional "wild card" spot. He joins Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, a two-time winner, in the "wild card" derby that ends Sept. 8 at Richmond International Raceway, the final stop before the Chase field is set.

Chase seeding remains crowded at the top. Gordon’s teammate Johnson missed a golden opportunity – a 91st lap spin while leading – to add three more bonus points to the nine he shares with Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski. All are three-time season winners.

Stewart might be the favorite to take over the provisional No. 1 seeding on Sunday at Watkins Glen International where the reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion has won five times – most at the 2.45-mile road course. Keselowski, however, finished second at The Glen a year ago and bids to become the track’s third consecutive first-time winner.

Bitterly disappointed the week before in Indianapolis, NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler bounced back in the best possible way at Iowa Speedway. Sadler won for the fourth time in 2012 and extended his championship lead over Richard Childress Racing teammate Austin Dillon to 18 points.

Saturday’s event at Watkins Glen International is the second of three road course events for the series this season. Sadler has the edge in experience over the current top four championship contenders and was 10th at The Glen last year. Fourth-place Sam Hornish Jr. was the top finisher (fifth) when the series visited Road America in June.

The series completes its road racing menu on Aug. 18 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, Canada.

Joey Coulter became the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ fourth first-time winner last Saturday at Pocono Raceway. The 22-year-old from Miami Springs, Fla. notched the sixth victory of the season by an under-30 competitor.

Timothy Peters continues to lead the championship standings heading for the series’ next event Aug. 18 at Michigan International Speedway. Eighteen points spans positions one through four as the season enters its second half.


Gordon On Cusp Of Making Chase After All
Never count out a four-time champion and 85-race winner until the last lap has been run. Jeff Gordon has come all the way back from a 35th-place ranking following the Daytona 500 to lay claim – for the moment anyway – to the second of two "wild card" qualifying berths for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. He was outside the top 20 and ineligible for a "wild card" as recently as June’s Pocono stop. He now stands 13th. Being in the right place at the right time to break a 31-race drought and score his 86th NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, Gordon joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne at the top of the "wild card" standings with five races remaining until the post-season lineup of 12 drivers is set. Gordon might need another victory to cement his "wild card" status but has won a combined 18 races at tracks left in the Race to the Chase. He is a four-time winner at the next stop – Sunday’s road race at Watkins Glen International – but not since 2001.

Kyle Busch Needs To Quickly Rediscover Winning Vibe
Where there’s a winner – Gordon – there’s a loser. And that guy is Kyle Busch. Busch dropped to 15th in NASCAR Sprint Cup points after Pocono’s race and stands fourth of five winners ranked 11th through 20th in the standings. After winning no fewer than three races a season since 2008, Busch has been uncharacteristically missing from Victory Lane in 2012. His single win came in May at Richmond International Raceway – the final pre-Chase stop. Good news for Busch: 12 of his 24 career victories have been scored at the five remaining Race to the Chase tracks.

Johnson’s Late-Race Stumble Leaves No. 1 Seed Up For Grabs
Five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson was well on his way to the provisional No. 1 Chase seed at Pocono until spinning from the lead on a 91st lap restart. Johnson, Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski remain deadlocked at three wins apiece – each driver counting nine bonus points to be added to a Chase base of 2,000 points should they remain among the top 10 in the standings. This week could be Stewart’s time to shine. The three-time and reigning champion is the leading winner at The Glen (five) most recently in 2009. Johnson, a road course winner at Sonoma, has yet to score at Watkins Glen while Keselowski finished second there a year ago.

Gordon’s Win Puts All Four Hendrick Drivers In Victory Lane
Hendrick Motorsports’ stock has shot to the top of the board since Johnson gave the organization its 200th victory in May at Darlington Raceway. Gordon’s Pocono victory was HMS’ seventh of the season (in the past 11 races) and third in a row. It also marked the first time that all four Hendrick drivers – currently Johnson, Gordon, Kahne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – have won in same season since 2007. HMS’ drivers that year were Johnson, Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears.

Earnhardt retained the NASCAR Sprint Cup points lead despite a transmission failure that ended his lead lap finishing streak at 20 races. Eight points are the difference between first and fourth place with Earnhardt trailed by Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Johnson.

NASCAR Sprint Cup’s Two Road Courses Produce Differing Results
Watkins Glen International and Sonoma’s road course each has left and right-hand turns. That’s where the similarities end – especially when it comes to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™. The Sonoma winner has qualified for the Chase in every season (2004-11). This year’s winner Clint Bowyer is ranked among the top 10 and likely will make the post season roster. It’s a different story at The Glen where the last two winners – Marcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya – failed to make the Chase. Kevin Harvick, one of two drivers among the top 10 without a victory this season, could end The Glen’s short string of non-Chase winners. Harvick won at The Glen in 2006 and finished sixth a year ago.

Remaining Race To Chase Venues Test Many Skills
Variety may be the spice of life and it’s certainly the definition of tracks comprising the final five stops in the Race to the Chase. The next month’s schedule visits a road course (Watkins Glen International), a pair of superspeedways (Michigan International and Atlanta Motor Speedways) and two short tracks (Bristol Motor Speedway and Richmond International Raceway). Three of the five tracks have run events this season with Keselowski the winner at Bristol, Kyle Busch on top in Richmond and Earnhardt ending a four-year victory drought at Michigan. Clint Bowyer won the year’s only other road race in Sonoma, Calif. Busch was the last driver to sweep both road course events (2008).

- NASCAR Media Services

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