The Biggest NASCAR Storylines Ahead of the Sprint Cup Series at Watkins Glen
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s win at Pocono on the heels of Jeff Gordon’s win a week earlier was a one-two feel-good punch for NASCAR. Two of the sport’s more popular drivers are assured a spot in the Chase this year, which makes the postseason sound very appealing and is a fan-magnet for those final 10 races.
The five races remaining before the start of the Chase feature a strong group of tracks that demand a wide range of skills: a short track, an even smaller short track, a 1.5-miler and a superspeedway between now and the end of the regular season.
Coming up this weekend is a wild card. Watkins Glen is a road course that drivers who don’t even like road racing like to come to, because it’s a fun mix of technical corners with long and fast straights.
Other stories this week include: another opportunity this Sunday for teams outside the Chase; a possible engine problem for Kyle Busch; and Jimmie Johnson's mini-slump is underway…or is it?
All this and more as the run-up to the Chase continues...
Five Races Remain to Make the Chase
It can’t be a very comfortable time for the NASCAR Sprint Cup driver sitting 17th in driver points...or 18th or even 20th.
Kasey Kahne knows. The Hendrick Motorsports driver, winless this season, is 17th in points and just outside the Chase cutoff along with rookie Austin Dillon (18th), Paul Menard (19th) and Marcos Ambrose (20th). Ambrose is banking on a win at Watkins Glen.
That trio, as well as Kahne, will have to aim for a magic day when all the stars align and they take the checkers first.
Without a win in one of the remaining five races, it will be a nail-biter for Kahne to get into the Chase this season. Last year's Pocono winner wasn't a factor this past weekend.
"It was hard to control all weekend for us, but we still had a decent car and I’m happy about that," said Kahne in a post-race interview. "A decent car won't get you into the Chase."
A decent team won't either.
Kevin Harvick's Chase-Bound Team Needs to Find Their Momentum
For the second time this season, Kevin Harvick admittedly made a mistake on pit road. The last time was at Kansas in May, when he came down pit road too slow.
At Pocono, Harvick took the blame for a quick glance in the mirror while coming down pit road that resulted in a pass-through speeding penalty.
“This hasn’t been one of my better race tracks, and the cars have been fast both races here. I made a lot of mistakes today and they made up for it with a fast race car,” said Harvick in a post-race interview.
This team hasn’t had a run of more than two top-10 weeks in a row since Week 12 back in May at Charlotte. That kind of performance doesn’t spell Chase success. This group needs to start thinking Chase and eliminate the mistakes. And that includes the driver, too.
Early Exit for Busch Not a Chase Indicator
Kyle Busch’s first engine failure during a race this season came at an untimely point in the season. This team needs momentum to take it into the Chase. It’s just not a championship-caliber team yet.
While it was a bit of a bummer coming off of two runner-up race weekends (Loudon and Indianapolis), an engine failure doesn’t reflect how good this team can be.
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing squad have five more chances to up their game, possibly scoring another win. Richmond is the likely candidate, as Busch has four wins there.
He has two wins at Watkins Glen, where he will be racing this weekend. Theoretically, Busch could win the next five, as he's good everywhere. That's not likely to happen, but a win would do wonders for this group.
Drivers Who Want to End Season on a High Note
Between them, they have a total of three top-fives.
Their total of top-10s is 11. Casey Mears (24th), AJ Allmendinger (25th), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (27th), Danica Patrick (28th) and David Ragan (33rd) aren’t likely to make the Chase on points this season.
But the new format still does offer them hope, as all five are capable of winning the next five races. Allmendinger’s best shot is this weekend on the road course at Watkins Glen.
He tested at the Glen last week during a multi-team run that included the Marco Ambrose and the Richard Petty Motorsports No. 9 team.
Allmendinger has been good on road courses when he’s driving the Nationwide Series car, winning both Mid-Ohio and Elkhart Lake driving in the NNS for Roger Penske.
Mears’ only Cup win came at Charlotte. Ragan’s two wins came at Daytona and Talladega. Stenhouse Jr. and Patrick are both winless in the Cup.
Only five chances remain for these drivers to capture the spotlight before the Chase begins and they essentially become background noise.
Do We Start Calling This a Jimmie Johnson Slump or a Stumble?
Since the Cup race at Kentucky in June, Jimmie Johnson has finished 42nd twice (Daytona and Loudon), 14th at Indianapolis and 39th this past weekend.
Is it time to officially call this a slump?
Some other teams might look at those finishes as acceptable, especially Indianapolis. But for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, even a finish out of the top five is uncharacteristic.
There are stories behind these misfortunate finishes that take much of the blame away from both the driver and crew chief. However, when your team is practically obsessed with winning, these become extraordinary times.
“So, it’s been a little inconsistent per team,” said Jimmie Johnson at Pocono last weekend:
We have had some bad luck. I feel like at Daytona we would have been somebody there to consider for a win. I feel at New Hampshire I was very optimistic about my day, but after watching things and how they turned out, I would have been racing for second the way it looked (laughs). But we can always be better and we certainly want to be better.
No panic yet. This team is a classic playoff team. It almost doesn’t matter what they do before Richmond. Its all about Chicago and beyond for them.
Watkins Glen One of NASCAR Season's Remaining Wild Cards
A decade ago, it used to be that Cup drivers circled the road course dates with dread. They meant little more than long afternoons filled with trying to beat a handful of road-course ringers.
But that was then, and this is now.
Where it was once common to see up to 10 “ringers,” road-racing specialists brought in to replace Cup regulars, the road-course experts now find it difficult to find a ride. This weekend, only Boris Said (No. 23) and Nelson Piquet Jr. (No. 77) can be considered ringers.
Marcos Ambrose is counting on a win at Watkins Glen as being his ticket to the Chase. He'll compete in the NASCAR Nationwide race on Saturday just to get more seat time.
The majority of Cup drivers now spend days practicing their road-course skills, either as part of a team test or a Goodyear tire test. As a result, drivers now circle the Sonoma and Watkins Glen dates as being a place where the playing field is level. It’s where drivers who aren’t good on ovals are all of a sudden running in the top five.
And for the drivers brought up on ovals, there’s also the challenge of being good at something you’re not expected to be good at.
Ask this year’s Sonoma winner, Carl Edwards, about that.
NASCAR Television Ratings and Attendance Still Troublesome
NASCAR continues to struggle with race-day television viewer numbers that are either flat or in decline over previous years. Some of this can be attributed to increased use of digital platforms to follow racing.
At the halfway point of the season, no NASCAR events made the top 50 televised sports events, not even the Daytona 500.
There was good news, as the Brickyard 400 showed an increase over last year.
Back-to-back wins by two of the sport’s biggest names (Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon) should help kickstart the mainstream sport’s media’s coverage of the upcoming Chase.
The Chase should attract more attention this year due to the change in format to an elimination round, with four drivers remaining to challenge for the championship at the final race in Homestead, Florida.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.
Bob Margolis has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent.
Follow Bob on Twitter: @BobMargolis
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