Saturday, August 9, 2014

Watkins Glen Practice Notes: Is Gordon a candidate to win again, finally?

LAS VEGAS -- Marcos Ambrose was every bit as good as expected during Friday's two practice sessions and Saturday's qualifying at Watkins Glen International, which enhances his chances of winning Sunday's Cheez-It 355. It also means his odds will drop a bit with little chance of getting 5-to-1 or better to win his third career race on the 2.45-mile road course.

There was no doubt that Ambrose was the driver to beat before coming in, but practices and qualifying kind of give that stamp of approval validating he's still the 'King of the course'. In his first five starts on the track, he finished third or better with two wins (2011, 2012). Last season he finished 31st, but led 51 of the first 61 laps.

He's good to go, and even more so that he's starting from a top-five start position where 21 of the 31 past Watkins Glen winners (67 percent) have come from. That has to be the most remarkable qualifying stat relevant to race day among all tracks.

Ambrose has taken over the crown as being 'King of the course' because of his recent prowess, but a former 'King', who has been irrelevant at Watkins Glen for the past decade, made a big splash on Saturday. Jeff Gordon won his third Watkins Glen pole and because of his recent surge this season, he might be ready to take back his throne.

Gordon won three consecutive races there from 1997-99, and has won four times overall, but none since 2001, which also marked the final of four championship seasons. Mix in his five other wins at Sonoma and it's a status mark in the Sprint Cup series that even Ambrose will have a difficult time coming close to matching.

The difference between now and when Gordon ruled was there weren't as many adept drivers on the roads. Gordon had maybe five or six drivers to beat, as well as a bunch of skilled road-course ringers in underfunded cars that held their own. Nowadays, Ambrose has up to 15 drivers to battle against and the ringers aren't even a factor anymore because the regulars have become so good on the courses.

Gordon is now one of those 15 drivers chasing Ambrose and trying to break through for his first top-five on the track since his 2001 win. Because of how consistently good he has been everywhere this season, he should be able to get at least a top-five on Sunday and maybe even join the three-timers club with Jimmie Johnson, Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. with his third win of the season.

Earnhardt Jr. is an interesting look this week because he's kind of in the same boat as Gordon in terms of consistency. He sits 17-points behind Gordon in points, but leads the series with 10 top-five finishes. He's historically had a tough time with road courses, but he finished a career-best third-place at Sonoma in June in what was his only top-10 finish there in 15 starts.

If you just saw the practice times and start position without his name attached, you would say Junior is a contender to win Sunday. Prior to this season, he had never won at Pocono and now he's won there twice, so anything is possible. This isn't the same Junior we have been accustomed to seeing over the years. Top to bottom, the No. 88 team has upgraded every facet of every type of program they have, including their road course program.

In the end, the winner is going to have to go through, or pass, Ambrose to get the win. Gordon and Junior will both be sentimental choices, but don't discount three other drivers starting in the top-five -- Johnson, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, or two-time winner Kyle Busch, who starts 19th. Brad Keselowski didn't practice great, but he's finished second three straight seasons at the Glen, loves this track, and has a decent start position (9th).

Read More Here....Final Driver Ratings

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