Winners and Losers of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Watkins Glen
All is picturesque, scenic and tranquil during most summer afternoons in upstate New York's Finger Lakes region. But for one weekend a year, 43 cars from the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with fire-belching exhaust pipes and roaring engines stampede the quiet countryside at Watkins Glen International Raceway.
The drivers bring their dramas and prerogatives using four-wheeled machines as their paint brushes leaving behind images of wafting tire smoke, crunched metal and spewed internal liquids.
For most, dreams of taking a checkered flag remain little more than fleeting optimism. Sunday, Kyle Busch finally made his dream again a reality.
Winner: Kyle Busch
To say Kyle Busch was waiting for his moment to seal the deal and win a second time at Watkins Glen would be an understatement.
Busch has led the most laps in the last two cup series races at the track, and lost the 2012 race when an oiled-down surface in the race's final laps allowed the competition to close. He ultimately spun on the final lap from the lead after contact with Brad Keselowski. Sunday, Busch looked like he again was going to play anything but first fiddle as Marcos Ambrose drove away from the field.
But the timing of a caution flag and a stroke of luck in Busch's favor put him in the lead and Ambrose deep in the field. Ambrose couldn't make up the lost ground, and Busch maintained his position through several restarts and challenges.
Loser: Marcos Ambrose
Marcos Ambrose was clearly the driver to beat on Sunday.
The Australian road course ace was seeking his third straight win at Watkins Glen, and looked to have things well in hand after starting on the pole. By Lap 61 of the 90-lap event, Ambrose had led 54 laps. His No. 9 team was planning the race on a two pit stop strategy and they were one lap from pitting when a caution flag for a wreck by teammate Aric Almirola ruined the plan.
Kyle Busch and others scrambling to catch him suddenly vaulted to the lead when Ambrose pitted under the yellow. Ambrose later complained of severe handling issues that kept him from racing back into contention. Those problems ultimately doomed his day on lap 85 when he crashed.
Ambrose, throwing his helmet toward his car after getting beat, was incensed over the lost opportunity.
Winner: Brad Keselowski's Karma
Brad Keselowski left Watkins Glen a year ago as Enemy No. 1 to Kyle Busch. Intentional or not, Keselowski had spun Busch from the lead on the wild last lap. Keselowski would eventually be passed by Marcos Ambrose for the win.
Sunday, thanks to a pair of late restarts, Keselowski was once again in position to challenge Busch from behind in the race's final laps. He even got close enough twice to bump Busch from the lead and potentially take the win. Instead, he held off and Busch held on for the win.
"I could have definitely dumped Kyle and won the race," Keselowski said. "That stuff goes back and forth, and I'm sure someone in the tabloid side of the media will make a big deal about that, but it won't be me because I know I did the right thing."
That "right thing" could pay off in spades, especially in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. A wreck in NASCAR's playoffs is severely damaging to championship hopes, and now Keselowski doesn't have to worry about Busch returning the favor at an inopportune time.
Loser: Jeff Gordon's Chase Stress
Jeff Gordon took a gut-punch a week ago at Pocono Raceway when a poor corner basically gave a race win to his teammate Kasey Kahne. It got even worse 14 laps in on Sunday at Watkins Glen.
Gordon was racing deep in the field behind Denny Hamlin when he got wide on the exit of Turn 4, slapped the metal guardrail with the left side of his car and lost control in the strip of grass still wet from torrential rains on Thursday and Friday. The car spun sideways on the high-speed track traction and Gordon nailed the right side wall.
The No. 24 returned to the race after a lengthy repair and actually picked up six spots to finish 36th over other drivers who suffered trouble. But Gordon, who was ninth in points before Sunday's race, is now on the outside of the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 13th with four races remaining to qualify. Suddenly, his need to win has intensified.
Winner: Michael Waltrip Racing
The past few weeks haven't been too kind to Michael Waltrip Racing after part-time driver Brian Vickers surprising win at New Hampshire in July.
At Indianapolis, the team finished 11th, 20th and 23rd. Last week at Pocono, they finished 14th, 15th and 18th. All of the finishes were a a staunch change from the usual top-5 and top-10 finishes that Clint Bowyer, Martin Truex Jr., Vickers and Mark Martin had been accumulating.
The return to road course racing at Watkins Glen helped to remedy the downturn. Truex held form from his win at Sonoma Raceway earlier this year by notching a third-place finish while Bowyer landed in sixth. Vickers was on pace for a stronger run until he was caught in Marcos Ambrose's accident.
Loser: NASCAR's Red Flag Use
A big wreck among back markers early in the 90-lap race Sunday left a large oil slick and several damaged cars marooned between Turns 3 and 4. NASCAR quickly stopped the field on track and displayed the red flag, both as a way to shorten the impact of an extended caution period on the race and to protect safety workers cleaning the area.
For some reason, NASCAR forgot all about the red flag during two late accidents—likely giving away two laps of green flag racing in the process.
No, it's not a huge issue and Kyle Busch would have likely won the race anyway. But, it's strange that NASCAR decided to keep cars moving on track when they had showed a penchant for using the red previously during the race.
Winner: Road Course Racing
Sunday wasn't the best road course race NASCAR has ever seen. After all, the finish of last year's event at Watkins Glen won't likely be repeated for a long, long time.
But Sunday's race at Watkins Glen showed once again why the cup series can be so very entertaining on the tracks that force left and right turns. Simply, the racing gets drivers out of their typical element and permits a host of new strategies. The road course races often bring new faces into focus, and force the standard ones to show all-around skill.
Twice a year simply isn't enough for NASCAR's top series on road course circuits. The show is just too entertaining to feature in such short supply.
Loser: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. did nothing wrong on Sunday, but he certainly felt Matt Kenseth did. Kenseth helped to trigger a wreck in front of Earnhardt that sent his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne spinning in one of the narrowest sections of the track.
Earnhardt couldn't avert Kahne and drove head-on into the No. 5. The extensive damage sent Earnhardt to the garage for repairs. He lost five laps in the process and finished 30th.
It ruined a day where Earnhardt was heading for a top-15 finish and possibly even a top-10 run. Never a winner on road courses in cup series competition, a top-10 finish would have been just the third of Earnhardt's career on the left-and-right tracks.
Winner: AJ Allmendinger
AJ Allmendinger's future in NASCAR continues to grow more interesting.
On Sunday, he was again filling for Bobby Labonte in the JTG-Daugherty Racing No. 47 and drove to a 10th-place finish. The result marked Allmendinger's best finish of 2013 in the cup series and the team's best finish since Labonte was ninth at Martinsville Speedway last October.
The 10th-place finish wasn't easy, either. Allmendinger ran out of fuel at one point and dropped deep in the field. He also suffered a pit road penalty.
Where Allmendinger will fall in 2014 is anyone's guess. But he's certainly proved through a number of solid starts in the cup series this season in low- and mid-tier equipment that he's capable enough to get the job done.