NASCAR at Watkins Glen 2015: Winners, Losers from Cheez-It 355
Buckle up, NASCAR fans. There are only four races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins, and if the last two weeks are any indication, we're in for a wild ride.
Sunday afternoon at Watkins Glen had all of the thrills you'd expect from a road race, with Joey Logano finally overcoming Kevin Harvick on the last lap as Harvick ran out of fuel.
Kyle Busch, Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch all rounded out the top five.
But right now, these races are about much more than just one day—it's all about looking forward to the Chase.
With that in mind, here are the winners and losers from a wild day at Watkins Glen.
Winner: Joey Logano
It's been a long time since Joey Logano's season-opening victory at the Daytona 500, and the No. 22 driver hadn't managed to make it back to Victory Lane in the Sprint Cup Series since.
That changed Sunday when Logano was able to pass an out-of-fuel Harvick midway through the final lap of the race to get the victory. It was the second road-course win of his career, and it occurred just one day after his first at the Xfinity race.
"First time I ever swept a weekend. I never thought it would happen at a road course," an elated Logano said on NBC Sports after the race.
Logano had been running very well lately—he had top-fives in six of his previous eight starts, and last week he was in position to win before running out of gas and finishing 20th.
But this week, luck finally turned to his favor once again. Heading into the Chase, Logano looks as dangerous as ever.
Loser: Denny Hamlin's Hood
Drivers and crew members prepare for a lot of variables on race day, but typically there's one thing they don't spend a lot of time prepping for: a flyaway hood.
But three weeks after his hood flew up during a practice at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Denny Hamlin's hood broke loose again mid-race at Watkins Glen.
Hamlin's hood popped up when he ran into the back of David Gilliland's No. 38 car on a restart 30 laps into the race. He was toward the back of the pack and in traffic because he had sped on pit road and received a penalty.
The impact jarred the hood's pins and brackets loose, and the hood flew up, covering Hamlin's windshield. He was still able to see through an opening and continued to race at speed, but NASCAR black-flagged the car, and he was forced to pit.
His crew sawed off the hood quickly, and Hamlin got a break when his cow flap fell off the car when he returned to the track, resulting in a debris caution.
Eventually, the No. 11 crew was able to get the hood off his replacement car and get it onto Hamlin's car, but it was too late for him to be in contention.
Hamlin finished in 27th place.
Winner: Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth has been conquering his demons one after one this summer. Last week, he won a fuel-mileage race at Pocono, something he'd never managed to do in his career.
On Sunday, Kenseth finally managed to get a top-five finish in a road race, ending up in fourth. This was a big surprise.
As Jordan Bianchi of SB Nation reported before Watkins Glen, "Road-course racing isn't Kenseth's forte. He's never finished better than eighth in 15 career starts and has led just a single lap."
But Kenseth proved this weekend that even at the age of 43, he is continuing to improve and become a more well-rounded driver. He also seems to be rounding into form just before the Chase, with five straight top-10 finishes.
Loser: AJ Allmendinger
AJ Allmendinger was the defending champion coming into Watkins Glen, and as he came back to the site of his lone Sprint Cup victory, the No. 47 driver's hopes for back-to-back Chase berths hung in the balance.
That pressure was clearly mounting on Allmendinger and his team all week long.
"I'm not going to lie; it is a stressful weekend for us because we all have the same expectations," Allmendinger's crew chief, Brian Burns, said before the race, as reported by Bob Pockrass of ESPN. "We try not to talk about it and try to block it out so we can stay as calm as we can."
Allmendinger started off well, winning the pole and then leading the first 21 laps of the race, but then a combination of the immense pressure and mechanical issues ruined his day.
When he was still in the top 10 early in the race, NBC Sports Network reported that Allmendinger told Burns over the radio, "Sorry man, I don't think it's going to happen today."
Later in the race, Allmendinger's power gave out during a caution, and he had to be pushed to pit road—and even though he got back on the track, the problems never ceased. He ended up in 24th place.
Winner: The Busch Brothers
The season started out poorly for brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch, with Kurt suspended due to domestic-violence accusations and Kyle out with an injury.
But now, both Busches are proving they are championship contenders.
Kyle finally locked up his top-30 spot Sunday, which means he is into the Chase, a miraculous achievement after missing the first 11 races of the year. The No. 18 car finished second Sunday, nearly nabbing his fifth win in the last seven races.
Older brother Kurt also managed a top-five finish, as he crossed the finish line in fifth place. Considering his day was filled with pit-road penalties and frustrations with his car, that was a great result.
Both Busch brothers have been driving like they have something to prove this season, and I think it's safe to say they've made a strong case for why they're the drivers to beat.
Loser: Tony Stewart
Tony Stewart's weekend began with the family of Kevin Ward Jr. filing a civil lawsuit against him for Ward's wrongful death. The incident that resulted in Ward's death happened exactly one year ago in a sprint-car race near Watkins Glen.
While they pale in comparison, on the track, Stewart's woes continued on Sunday.
Despite seemingly turning the corner and finding speed recently—he finished ninth last week and qualified third this week—Stewart's car gave out 56 laps into the race, and he ended up finishing 43rd, otherwise known as last place.
Stewart was fifth when the mechanical failure occurred. He is currently 27th in the standings and hasn't won a Sprint Cup race in well over two years.
Winner: Road-Course Racing
Let me join the chorus of right-turn fans who are crying: More road courses, please!
Watkins Glen is one of only two road courses on the NASCAR calendar (Sonoma Raceway is the other track), and both of them only hold one race per year. That's just simply not enough for tracks that provide such excitement.
Like so many great road-course races before it, this Sunday at Watkins Glen had everything: varying strategies, intense speeds, fuel-mileage questions and hard, turn-to-turn racing.
It was fun to watch some wild cards mix it up with the sport's elite drivers, and it was thrilling to see the drivers navigate the varying turns, tight corners and long, narrow straightaways.
So much of the NASCAR season feels like a rerun, so it really seems that at least one more stop at a road course should be in the cards. Change is good.
Loser: Chase Hopefuls on the Bubble
There were a handful of drivers who entered the race on Sunday on the Chase bubble, looking for either a victory or a high finish to help solidify their postseason spot.
Of that group, only Clint Bowyer had a happy day—he finished in sixth place, which put him firmly in 16th in the standings, currently slated as the last man in if there are no other new winners this season.
Kasey Kahne wasn't so fortunate, though. A week after crashing in Pocono's fifth lap of the day, Kahne could only manage to make it to Lap 49 before crashing out at Watkins Glen.
He is now sitting at 18th in the Chase standings and was clearly frustrated after the race.
His teammate Jeff Gordon struggled as well. In the last road-course race of his career, Gordon had brake problems throughout and ended up four laps down and in 41st place. He's now down to 14th in the standings.
Other Chase hopefuls avoided disaster, but they didn't help their cause any: Kyle Larson finished 12th, Greg Biffle finished 14th, Ryan Newman finished 15th and Aric Almirola finished 16th.