The NASCAR Sprint Cup racers invade Watkins Glen for their second of two road course races of the season. The configuration for Watkins Glen is radically different from Infineon Motor Speedway where they raced in June. Some rides will feature different drivers and a couple other drivers not usually involved in regular cup events will attempt to qualify as the road racing "specialists" mix in with series regulars.
UPDATE: Qualifying Rained Out -- Starting Lineup Determined by Owner's Points
Brian Sino and Boris Said knocked out of field unable to qualify; Said will command the #45 Petty Enterprises ride.-
The road racing "ringers" driving on Sunday find themselves down toward the bottom of the pile beginning with the 32nd spot, pilotted by Ron Fellows in car #01, for DEI. The most noteworthy development of this week's driver's shuffle will have P. J. Jones starting 38th in car# 96 for Jeff Mourad's Hall of Fame Racing. In the midst of an operation-wide shake up, J.J. Yeley has been dismissed from the team. Nationwide series regular, Brad Coleman, will man the #96 team for the rest of the season. Max Papis nearly scrapes bottom starting 42nd behind the wheel of the #70 Haas Racing Chevrolet. The "legendary*" Wood Brothers round out the field with Marcose Ambrose and his thunder from down under manning the controls of the #21 Ford.
Since road course racing format is so radically different from conventional oval formats, some drivers are known particularly as road racing experts, these include Jeff Gordon, Robby Gordon, Tony Stewart, Mark Martin. Tony Stewart has won four out of six races at the Glen since 2002. Mark Martin won three consecutive years, 1993-95. Jeff Gordon owns four Watkins Glen victories, 1997, 1998, 1999, and 2001. Other active drivers with Watkins Glen victories are -- Kevin Harvick, 2006; Robby Gordon, 2003; Kyle Petty, 1992, and Terry Labonte, 1987 and 1991.
The road course race is one of the most unpredictable events as the "race for the chase" intensifies. Only Bristol upcoming at month's end is more notorious for scrambling the finishing order as its high banks and short track bumps and grinds becomes a demolition derby. The role of the road racing specialists filling in for series regulars will be to finish as high in the standings as possible to gain ground in locking down a spot in the top 35 in owner's points and the guaranteed spot in the starting lineup that assures. Meanwhile the tight battle to secure a space for the chase continues to intensify as positions 7 to 14 are separated by only 126 points. While Matt Kennseth in 13th spot is 11 points out of the chase and Roush-Fenway teammate is 46 points out. For any driver in this tight pack, a dreadful finish could make competing for championship honors a long shot as there will only be three more races: Michigan, Bristol, and California before the Saturday night Shootout at Richmond on September 6. In the remaining races, a carefully crafted strategy aimed at track position, avoiding getting caught back in the field and faulty pit stops, will divide the contenders from the also-rans. Six drivers will be racing for a shot at the championship; the other two will be left with nothing but glory for their fall competition.
Track position is a particularly difficult game at road courses. Falling out of the lead lap spells certain doom and aggressive passing usually results in piles of metal being collected.
How will points leader phenom, Kyle Busch, handle his #18 Toyota? Will he attempt to shoot for glory or play it safe as he's in a position where essentially things can only get worse given his position in the standings and lead in victories which also provide bonus points in establishing chase positioning? This weekend could be a tough weekend for Dale Earnhardt Jr. who has only two top fives and three top tens at Watkins Glen with an average finishing position of 20.6.
Among the "crunch for the chase," those eight drivers trying to secure a spot in the championship run, based on past experience, this could be Tony Stewart's big day. Looking at the rest of the field, Kasey Kahne has never placed in the top ten with an average finish of 19.8 at the Glen. Greg Biffle has only one top ten and an alarming 30.2 average finish. It could be a happy day for Denny Hamlin who has 1 top five and 2 top tens with a fine average finish of 6 in upstate New York. Kevin Harvick with two top fives and four top tens averages a 12th spot at Watkins Glen, not bad! With very limited experience at the Glen, Clint Boyer has maintained an average finish of 15. Matt Kenseth, normally Mr. Consistency, shows no top fives and three top tens averaging 16.8 handling the right and left turns. Finally, David Ragan, a relative newcomer at Watkins Glen has only a dismal average finish of 32.0 to show for his efforts.
The remaining three drivers looking like sure bets for the chase have done nothing to distinguish themselves nor would their history indicate any significant problems on the road course deep in Yankee territory.
Here's the big thing to look for. The "crunch bunch" has to go all out to secure top ten spots. Remember last week, a normally respectable 11th place finish knocked Matt Kenseth out of the top 12 which would have been fatal at Richmond next month. The track position game is further complicated as the road racing "ringers" usually do their job where drivers like Marcos Ambrose, Ron Fellows, and Boris Said can easily sneak into the top 10 and regular Robby Gordon can come from deep in the pack on other races and score big time in this competition.
Things are getting a little tense in the garage area as crew chiefs, engineers, crew members, and drivers look for every advantage from cars that NASCAR has restricted so thoroughly for a clever crew chief to employ even the most subtle little tweak. Microscopic measurements make huge differences and seconds last an eternity at the highest level, the elite, of American motorsports.
Who's going to win? Keep an eye on Tony Stewart. He's long overdue for a victory, is a strong second half performer, and Watkins Glen has been very, very good for "Smoke" in recent years. Keep an eye on Gibbs teammate, Denny Hamlin. One more driver to keep an eye on would have to be Ol' "Happy" Harvick. Meanwhile, the Roush Fenway drivers and Kasey Kahne will have more than enough to handle to keep their chase prospects good.
The competitors also could be racing the heavens as scattered thunderstorms with air temperature in the low 70's forecast up in New York's Finger Lake region.
Gentlemen, start your engines AND DON'T FORGET TO INFLATE YOUR TIRES.
*Wood Brothers -- In attempting to establish his street credibility as a free lance sports commentator providing commentary on NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing, "RMF" felt he should adhere to the industry standard of using the term, legendary, when invoking the name of the long-standing historical team from Virginia. For all race fans who started following NASCAR since Jeff Gordon was a pup, Gordon's rookie season was two years after future Winston Cup Champion, Dale Jarrett, scored a dramatic victory in the #21 CITGO Ford banging fenders with Davey Allison in the #28 Havoline Ford for Robert Yates racing. Since then Michael Waltrip won a "Winston" and Morgan Shepherd and Elliot Sadler have wins too, don't they? if we talk of legend as meaning a really old legacy like the Twelve Labors of Hercules going back to Neil Bonnett, but before Neil there were some of the early heroes of the sport among them at various times included: Curtis Turner, Marvin Panch, Fireball Roberts, Parnelli Jones, Tiny Lund, Junior Johnson, Speedy Thompson, Fred Lorenzen, and Cale Yarborough. The Wood Brothers were creditted with inventing the modern pit stop even taking their talents to the Indy 500 and Formula I. The 1970's would be their glory decade, with David Pearson rivalry against the King proved to be one of the hottest rivalries in sports. The 1980's showed a sport in transition. Neil Bonnett started with the Brothers Wood then left returning late in decade with Buddy Baker and Kyle Petty driving for the team in between. It was Kyle's ride to success in NASCAR before moving to the Felix Sabates team. The elder Woods would move on leaving the team to younger Woods to run the operation. Meanwhile, NASCAR was becoming a sport dominated by big money and super teams as Hendricks, Yates, and Roush were in their infancy and starting to compete by the end of the decade. The 90's found the Wood Brothers stepping back from the sports elites. In 1990, Neil Bonnett sustained serious injuries that should have ended his career at Darlingon opening a seat for Dale Jarrett. A new breed of drivers were now coming into their prime as drivers, Terry Labonte, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Davey Allison, and Bill Elliot. The Dale Jarrett victory seemed like the old magic was back in August of 1991 only to lose Jarrett to the start-up venture of Joe Gibbs Racing that would in many ways become like a modern day Wood Brothers. For much of the 90's, the Wood Brothers would provide a great starting point for rising stars whether it was getting Michael Waltrip to take a checkered flag for the first time or introducing Elliot Sadler to the Cup level. The new millenium could appear to be the sunset on the famous operation. Instead of being the ride for where promising drivers would start, it has become a place for senior drivers like Ken Schrader, Ricky Rudd, and Bill Elliot driving the #21 car near the end of their lines. The future of the Wood Brothers appears to rest on the shoulders of favorite son, Jon Wood. There you have it, race fans, a brief history of one of NASCAR's greatest teams. As the geniuses behind the modern pit stop, be assured the "legendary" brothers would remind all race fans to remember to do something that if not attended to properly on the race track could see a car go flying into the wall, INFLATE YOUR TIRES.