Complete Preview and Prediction for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series at Watkins Glen
Sprinkled within the 36-race 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule are several wild-card events.
Daytona and Talladega, as well as the short tracks at Bristol and Martinsville, are wild cards. So is the road course at Sonoma.
This weekend, NASCAR has another one of its wild-card races at the other road course on the Cup schedule: Watkins Glen International. The 2.5-mile, seven-turn track is located on the southern end of Lake Seneca, New York, in a picturesque area known for its wine production.
Drivers like the Glen, as it is called, because it has both technical corners and long, fast straights that challenge both driver and crew chief.
"I'd say my favorite part about Watkins Glen is just the speed that you get to go there," said two-time (2008, '13) winner Kyle Busch.
"You're going 170, 180 miles an hour at a road course. That's fast. It's pretty unique the way that place is and how it's laid out going through Turns 2, 3, 4 and up through the esses, grabbing gears, shifting and really hunkering down carrying some good speed down the backstretch."
Is it any wonder why drivers love this place?
By the Numbers: Watkins Glen International and the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen
The Cheez-It 355 at the Glen
The Place: Watkins Glen International
The Date: Sunday, Aug. 10
The Time: Noon ET
TV: ESPN, Countdown at Noon, Race coverage at 1 p.m. ET
Radio: Motor Racing Network (MRN), simulcast on Sirius XM Ch. 90
Weather for Watkins Glen, New York, per Weather.com
Distance: 225 miles (90 laps)
Defending Race Winner: Kyle Busch, M&M's Toyota
Defending Pole Winner: Marcos Ambrose, 128.241 mph (68.77 secs)
Track Qualifying Record: Marcos Ambrose, 128.241 mph, (68.777 secs) 8-9-13
Track Race Record: Mark Martin, 103.030 mph, (02:11:54), 8-13-95
Youngest Watkins Glen Winner: Kyle Busch (08/10/2008—23 years, 3 months, 8 days)
Oldest Watkins Glen Winner: Geoff Bodine (08/11/1996—47 years, 3 months, 24 days)
Nine of the 31 (29 percent) Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen have been won from the pole; the most recent was Kyle Busch in 2008.
Pole position has produced more winners (nine) than any other starting position at Watkins Glen.
Eleven of the 31 (35.4 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen have been won from the front row—nine from the pole and two from second place.
Twenty-one of the 31 (67.7 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Watkins Glen have been won from a top-five starting position.
Twenty-two of the 31 (71 percent) NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Watkins Glen have been won from a top-10 starting position.
The number of Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen that have been won from a starting position outside the top 20? Zero.
The deepest in the field that a race winner has started at Watkins Glen was 18th, by Steve Park in 2000.
Johnson and Co. Could Use a Good Weekend
Everyone knows the No. 48 Lowe’s team is all about postseason play, right? So, why all the distress over a few bad race weekends?
Maybe its because of the uncharacteristic streak of bad weekends that is coming at this time in the season. We’re accustomed to seeing this team have a mediocre first quarter every few years, but this "slump" comes at a time when the team should be gearing up for postseason play.
Is it a slump, or is it just a series of odd coincidences?
Crew chief Chad Knaus is concerned, but he's not worried, as he told the media last week: "We are not running as well as we need to. I think everybody knows that. We have had some struggles this year. We’ve won a few races, which is great. But on a consistent level, we are not as fast as what we want to be. Quite honestly, I don’t think anybody is."
The Glen just happens to be one of the only remaining tracks on the Sprint Cup schedule where Johnson does not have a win. Homestead, Kentucky and Chicagoland are the others.
Wild-Card Race Offers Opportunity for Several Drivers
It’s not only the drivers sitting just outside of the Chase (Kasey Kahne, Austin Dillon, Paul Menard and Marcos Ambrose) who need a win this weekend. There are several others to think about.
Martin Truex Jr., AJ Allmendinger, Danica Patrick and Jamie McMurray are all considered better-than-average road-course racers and see the Glen as a race where, if the pieces fall into place, they have a chance at winning.
All of these drivers are winless this season, and with the magic number of races left before the Chase begins down to five, this wild-card race offers them an opportunity to make it into the postseason.
Former Glen Winners Can Get Chase-Ready
While there isn’t a road course in the Chase (there should be), a win here by one of the previous Glen winners already in the Chase (Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch) would be an ideal warm-up for postseason racing.
"It's about trying to get yourself ready for the last 10 weeks," Harvick began. "To know that, you're not going to win every race, you're going to have days…where you have to scramble, you're going to have practices where your car is off, you're going to have things that are going to go wrong. On the days when things are right, you need to capitalize on them and win the race."
Busch is a two-time winner ('08, '13) at the Glen, as well as a pole winner (2011). His Joe Gibbs Racing team is coming off an untimely exit at Pocono due to engine failure, something not likely to be repeated at the Glen.
Gordon is a four-time Watkins Glen race winner, but the last time he visited Victory Lane here was in 2001. Can a resurgent Gordon bring back some of that youthful magic this weekend and score his third win of 2014?
A Must-Win for Ambrose
Simply put, this weekend is the last chance for Aussie driver Marcos Ambrose to make the Chase. And if the news reports of his departure from full-time racing in the Cup Series are true, this is the last real chance for him to win a Cup race.
Ambrose knows the heat is on, and he tested last week at the Glen in an effort to gain every bit of an advantage as possible.
"Obviously I'm very comfortable at a road course, and I just love Watkins Glen," Ambrose said. "I know what I need at this track, as far as the setup of the car, the feel of the car. I don't need a lot of direction and can really tell the guys what adjustments to make so we have a good car on Sunday.
"This race is still a lot of pit strategy, and a lot of things can happen on the track too. You are never guaranteed a win at this level."
Like we said, this is a must-win, and he knows it.
Lest We Forget: Past Watkins Glen Winner Stewart
Hobbled earlier in the season by his recovery from injuries suffered in a serious sprint-car wreck last summer, three-time Glen winner Tony Stewart admitted that he was up for the physical demands of road racing earlier in the season at Sonoma.
"You’re busy. You just don’t get any chance to rest. You go to a track like Pocono and you spend 90 percent of the lap driving in a straight line and resting. You can actually think about what you’re going to do," Stewart said.
"(On a road course), you really only have probably two or three seconds during the lap that you’re actually not doing something, whether it’s turning or shifting, upshift, downshift; so it gives you plenty to do. It makes it fun because you can’t let your guard down."
Stewart remains winless and outside of the list of 16 drivers who currently will make the Chase. Although he’ll have other opportunities to win, it make sense to put a "W" up on the board and as soon as possible for this team.
Bits and Pieces
Nelson Piquet Jr., son of former Formula One champion Nelson Piquet, will make his Sprint Cup Series debut this weekend driving the No. 77 Ford for car owner Randy Humphrey.
Piquet has three NASCAR national series wins in his career, including one at a road course in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Road America in 2012...Said Heads Rejoice! Veteran road-course racer Boris Said will be behind the wheel of the No. 32 Ford for car owner Frank Stoddard Jr.
Drivers to Watch
All eyes will be on this Richard Petty Motorsports driver, as the Glen represents his last best chance at making the Chase. Ambrose is a two-time winner (2011 and 2012), so it’s not difficult to imagine him in Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon.
Another two-time winner, Busch is coming off a disappointing weekend at Pocono. Last year, the now-29-year-old driver led the final 29 circuits at the 2.45-mile, 11-turn road course to notch his second career victory there. Busch has eight top-10 finishes in nine starts at Watkins Glen and also earned the pole in 2011.
If the four-time champion is really ready to make it five, then this team should be at the front for much of the afternoon. Gordon ran well at Sonoma and scored a runner-up finish to race winner Carl Edwards.
The 2006 Glen winner led the second-most laps at Sonoma, but pit strategy relegated this team to a 20th-place finish. Harvick’s team needs to get wound up and ready for postseason play, and a win at the Glen is just the way to do it.
The Roush Fenway Racing driver may be a lame duck, but he’s also proven himself as a competent road racer with his win at Sonoma. He led the most laps there and held off a tough Jeff Gordon for the win. Don’t count this former late-model racer out Sunday.
When the Chase format changed and opened the door for every race winner, Allmendinger circled this date. He’s never finished worse than 13th here in five races—his best was a fourth-place finish in 2010. His JTG Daugherty team tested here last week, and this former IndyCar racer is primed to win.
Both Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson are threats to win every weekend this season. These two have shown just how far the Chip Ganassi Racing program has come just since last season. McMurray has three poles at Sonoma, so he knows his way around a road course. Larson is just…well, what else is left for him but a win on a road course?
This team needs to get out of its funk, and maybe the fresh mountain air of upstate New York is just the prescription. No one is pushing the panic button at the No. 48 team—yet.
Not often thought of as a road warrior, Menard finished fifth at Sonoma in June. With crew-chief extraordinaire Slugger Labbe making the calls, Menard has to be considered a threat to win.
Although winless on road courses, Junior loves road racing—when he’s got a good car. Last week’s win at Pocono was big for this team. It's easy to believe that the momentum from its sweep at the Tricky Triangle can push this team to even greater heights with back-to-back wins.
The 2009 Sonoma winner faces another must-win situation at the Glen. On the outside looking in at the Chase isn’t where this Hendrick Motorsports team wants to be.
Martin Truex Jr.
Yes, for the second week in a row, the New Jersey native is our dark-horse pick. He was a contender at Pocono until he was involved in the multicar wreck midway through the race.
Truex Jr., the 2013 Sonoma winner, hasn't equaled that feat at Watkins Glen—yet. The No. 78 team has struggled this year, as he and veteran crew chief Todd Berrier work on finding common ground.
Berrier was crew chief for Kevin Harvick's '06 win at the Glen, and he's well-versed in road-course strategy. Last season he directed Kurt Busch to top-10 finishes at both Sonoma and the Glen.
Both men would like to put this season behind them, but if there is even a slim chance to make the Chase this season with a win, they'll both grab it with both hands.
"Obviously it's not been the season that we had hoped it would be, and definitely not sitting where we'd like to be in points," Truex Jr. said. "But we felt like Watkins Glen would be a good place for us to kind of put in a little bit of extra effort."
I'm glad to see that former crew chief and now a NASCAR analyst for FoxSports.com Jeff Hammond, also lists Truex Jr. among his dark-horse picks.
"Anther guy who has won at Sonoma and is really good on the road courses is Martin Truex, Jr. and (crew chief) Todd Berrier knows how to run the strategy."
The Furniture Row team had a good test at the Glen two weeks ago, and Truex Jr. finished third here a year ago with Michael Waltrip Racing.
Red-hot Jeff Gordon won the pole for the 29th annual Cheez-it 355 at the Glen with a lap of 68.126 seconds with an average speed of 129.466 mph.
“That was huge. We made several qualifying runs yesterday and really struggled," said Gordon in an interview after his run. "We have been struggling here qualifying these last few years. It’s had a lot to do with our poor performance here at Watkins Glen. I didn’t think we had that in us. Well I should say I knew the car had it in it. I didn’t think I did."
Starting alongside of Gordon is Marcos Ambrose whose lap of 68.299 seconds, 129.138 fell just short of Gordon's mark.
“He is a fantastic road racer and I have watched a lot of races here where he dominated," remarked Ambrose after qualifying. "He is having a standout year. I wish Jeff was a little kinder to me to let me get the pole.
Especially frustrating for Ambrose is that he reset the track qualifying record during the first round of qualifying with a lap of 68.113 seconds, 129.491 mph.
"I thought we had it at the end but it wasn’t enough," added Ambrose. "It was a pretty good lap though and I will take it. You have to be happy with front row starts.”
Starting in the second row will be Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. Rounding out the top five is Kurt Busch.
Notable starts: A. J. Allmendinger (6th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (7th), Brad Keselowski (9th), Tony Stewart (13th), 2014 Sonoma winner Carl Edwards (16th), defending race winner Kyle Busch (19th), Kyle Larson (23rd), Kasey Kahne (30th) and Danica Patrick (43rd).
And the Winner Is: Marcos Ambrose
This fan favorite won his first NASCAR Sprint Cup race here in 2011 and backed it up with a win in '12. The Glen holds a special place in his heart.
While he's been quick in qualifying on ovals, Ambrose has not been able to complete the deal on one. An oval win, once thought improbable, might still be waiting in the wings later this season.
He is, however, a threat on every road course. His battles with the competition, especially when coming from deep in the field, are pure racing entertainment, as the Tasmanian bumps and bangs his way to the front.
That's not likely to happen this weekend, as Ambrose knows it's his best and perhaps last shot at getting into the Chase. This team tested at the Glen two weeks ago, just to cover its bases.
Given all this information and his past history, it's surprising that only one (Jeff Wackerlin) of the panel of experts at MRN.com, including writers such as Dustin Long and Pete Pistone, are not picking Ambrose for the win. I can't argue with their choice of Kyle Busch, but this is a must-win for Ambrose and the Aussie will step it up and win this one.
Expect the No. 9 team to be nearly perfect this weekend.
Chase Elliott continues to turn heads in his rookie season. He has posted three wins (tied for the series most with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski), eight top-fives, 14 top-10s and an average finish of 9.2 in only 20 starts.
The JR Motorsports driver’s road-racing experience is limited, although he did finish in the top five earlier this season at Road America.
In his rearview mirror is teammate Regan Smith. The two have swapped the series-standings lead three times this season. Smith, who calls Cato, New York, his hometown, has posted one win, four top-fives, 17 top-10s (leader in this category) and an average finish of 8.9 this season. He finished fourth at this event last season.
The JR Motorsports duo has built a small lead over its nearest competitors, but even a minor error over the next few races (the NNS has back-to-back road courses with Mid-Ohio next week) could open the door for third-place Elliott Sadler or fourth-place Ty Dillon.
Sadler sits just 12 points back from the series lead after posting one win, five top-fives, 14 top-10s and an average finish of 9.5 this season.
The momentum of his first series career win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a top-five finish at Iowa last week has Dillon keenly focused on a championship run.
Dillon, like Sadler, is just 12 points back from the standings lead after posting one win, three top-fives and 14 top-10s. This will be his series debut at Watkins Glen. Not yet a road warrior, he finished 19th at Road America earlier this season.
Nationwide Top Five
1. Chase Elliott
2. Regan Smith (-2)
3. Elliott Sadler (-12)
4. Ty Dillon (-12)
5. Trevor Bayne (-41)
Watkins Glen: A Perspective
Watkins Glen International is one of the world's most storied race tracks. Born out of a desire to bring European-style road racing to America, the road course originally went through the streets of the town of Watkins Glen, beginning just after World World II ended.
A permanent course was constructed nearby, and in 1957 the Glen hosted its first NASCAR Grand National (as the Sprint Cup Series was then called) Series event won by Buck Baker.
Formula One brought an international spotlight to the track beginning in 1961. The European-based series competed at the Glen every year until 1980.
NASCAR began its current series of annual events at the Glen in 1986. Eighteen different drivers have won at Watkins Glen International in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, led by Tony Stewart with five wins.
A complete and comprehensive history of the Glen can be found on the track's website.
Watkins Glen is also home of the International Motor Racing Research Center. Their mission is to be the home of materials and information that represent the heritage of amateur and professional motor racing, highlighting Sports Car, Formula One, NASCAR and vintage and historic racing.
All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated. Additional information and statistics in this slideshow obtained from official media guides and official driver and race track websites.
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