More skilled drivers could finally make Watkins Glen competitive

Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen International could be one of the more competitive races we’ve seen on the 2.45 road course over the last 13 seasons. Just by looking at the wide array of unusual’s who had quality practices Friday and by witnessing Jimmie Johnson win at Sonoma in June, almost anything looks to be possible Sunday.

To say that a race at Watkins Glen will be competitive really is going out on a limb because it’s a yearly case of the same old results. Of all the tracks on the currently tour, there hasn’t been one dominated quite so easily by such a small pool of drivers. Over the last 13 years, it’s basically been the Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart show. The road course aces have won nine of the races during that span.

While Jeff Gordon has tailed off a bit on his road course mastery -- thanks to Stewart -- Stewart is in the midst of a tear having finished no worse than runner-up in six straight Watkins Glen races. Since 1990, only three drivers have sustained that type of consistency over six straight races and none have done it for six straight seasons. The other drivers did over the course of three to four seasons at tracks that race two times a year.
Today’s drivers are getting better on the road courses each time out with many of them coming up through the ranks having spent some of their early years in go-karts or open-wheel racing, as opposed to years past when most of the NASCAR drivers grew up in the south driving strictly on ovals. 
As these drivers have gone through a maturation process in the stock cars, Stewart has still been dominating. But there does look to be hope out there this week for someone to knock off the giant at his top track. While Stewart won the Watkins Glen race last year, we have seen the last four winners at Sonoma be first time road course victors.
Juan Pablo Montoya’s 2007 win at Sonoma came with little surprise since he did win at Monaco, but then Kyle Busch won followed by a real surprise in Kasey Kahne, and then culminating with the Johnson win this year.
Kahne had never come close to sniffing a road course top-10 prior to last season’s big Sonoma win and then he followed it up this year with a great fourth-place run. Jimmie Johnson had done all he could to get better on the road courses by racing on any type sports car series he could during his off time and it worked. He crossed Sonoma off his “Bucket List” now leaving him with only four tracks left to win at, one of which remains Watkins Glen.
Another driver making things interesting is someone Johnson should thank for gift wrapping the June Sonoma win. Marcos Ambrose had Sonoma all sewn up and then made a costly error by shutting the car off to conserve fuel during a caution. The car didn’t restart immediately and Ambrose lost several positions because he didn’t keep up with the pace car.
That mistake cost Ambrose his first career Cup win, but he’ll back with a vengeance this week at a track he does better than most at having finished runner-up and third in his only two Cup starts. He’s fresh off a Watkins Glen three-peat in the Nationwide series with his win Saturday and Sunday will be his last real chance to win for JTG Daugherty Racing as he will be leaving the team following this season.
We also have past Cup road race winners like Kevin Harvick and Robby Gordon that are always a threat, but the drivers who stood out better then normal in practice are the reasons for believing the competitive balance may shift for Watkins Glen the way it has at Sonoma. Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Kurt Busch all looked terrific in Friday’s practice.
The Roush duo was very impressive in practice and qualifying with Biffle topping the charts in both of Friday’s practices and Edwards pole sitting for the first time ever in a Cup road race. Biffle has been getting better on the road courses having a career best finish of fifth in last years race at The Glen and then followed that up with a solid seventh-place finish at Sonoma in June. Edwards has had success in the Nationwide series road course events and has a career Cup average finish of 8.8 at Watkins Glen. Following Biffle’s big win at Pocono last week to stop the Ford winless streak in 2010, the Roush drivers look better than ever to get ailing owner Jack Roush his first Watkins Glen win since 1995 with Mark Martin.
Kurt Busch was a standout Friday and Saturday, but has never had any consistent success at Watkins Glen over his career. Last year’s seventh-place finish was the best he’s ever done. This week he’ll be using the same chassis that finished 32nd at Sonoma in June, but that poor finish isn’t the true measure of the car. Late in the race while climbing to the front and in fifth, Jeff Gordon punted Busch while trying to pass around the tight turn 11. No wonder Busch blew up in a press conference Friday calling the Hendrick “pretty boys” out a week after Johnson punted Busch at Pocono. Look for Busch to handle things on the track with a great run. Also, if the No. 24 or 48 get too close, odds are Busch takes justice and the law in his own hands just as NASCAR has said they will allow.
That may one of the reason to stay away from both Johnson and Gordon this week. For Gordon, his problems rest more with just not having a very good car. He was 30th and 39th in Friday’s practice, the worst ever seen for a Gordon practice on any road course. He did qualify better on Saturday, but the only reason anyone could bet on Gordon winning this week is just because of his nine career road course wins even though it‘s been four years since he‘s won at any of them. His last win at Watkins Glen was in 2001. Chances are that even if Busch wanted to retaliate, Gordon may never be close enough up front to return the favor.
We lump in Sonoma and Watkins Glen together because they are the only road courses on the Cup schedule, but as far as road courses go, they couldn’t be more different. Sonoma is a much more difficult, technical track while Watkins Glen runs much faster with long straightaways. It’s surprising that Sonoma would be the track that has had four straight first time road winner since The Glen is more about the horsepower of the engine and less about the driver’s skills.
The speed differential between the two tracks is nearly 30 mph at lap which in many ways explains how the top drivers from the top teams, like Gordon and Stewart during their runs, have fared so well at Watkins Glen. Give the top road race driver some horsepower and the rest of the field is in trouble if he gets out front. It looks like this week there are quite a few teams -- up to 13 drivers -- that could give Stewart a run for his money this week.  
Roberts Weekly Driver Ratings
Each week I will provide an analysis of my top rated drivers on how well they will do in the race based on the following criteria:
• Practice sessions leading up to the weekend’s Sprint Cup race
• Chassis information on what was brought to each track by each team, good or bad
• Driver tendencies at certain tracks
• Recent and overall histories for each driver at each track
• Decipher poor past results with what really happened, good car -- or bad luck?
These final ratings should help assist in final betting strategies with the Las Vegas books or match-up and prop plays, as well as help in NASCAR fantasy leagues.      
Micah Roberts Top 10 Driver Ratings
Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at The Glen
Watkins Glen International
Sunday, August 8, 2010 - 10:16 am (PDT)
Rating    Driver     Odds     Practice 1  Practice 2  Qualifying  Sonoma
 1. Tony Stewart 7/2               22nd           6th             6th              9th
All-time track leader with five career wins; six straight finishes on no worse than runner-up.
 2. Marcos Ambrose 7/2         7th             3rd            11th             6th
Finished runner-up and third in only two Cup starts at The Glen; won last three Nationwide races.
 3. Juan Pablo Montoya 8/1    6th            2nd             3rd              10th
Fourth and sixth-place finishes in his last two Watkins Glen starts; great practices Friday.
 4. Greg Biffle 60/1                 1st             1st              7th              7th 
Dialed in strong during both practices; lots of momentum coming off of huge win at Pocono.
 5. Kyle Busch 8/1                  11th           7th             10th             39th
Swept 2008 road course season; will be using same chassis from Sonoma.
 6. Kevin Harvick 12/1            18th           5th             20th             3rd
2006 winner at The Glen who is using a brand new chassis this week.
 7. Carl Edwards 30/1            10th           11th            1st              29th
8.8 career average Watkins Glen finish that include two top-five finishes.
 8. Kurt Busch 25/1                 5th             4th             5th              32nd
Using same chassis that was running in top-five at Sonoma until punted by Jeff Gordon.
 9. Jimmie Johnson 8/1          29th           13th            9th              1st
Three career top-fives at The Glen; using winning Sonoma chassis this week.
10. Jeff Gordon 8/1                30th           39th           16th             5th
Terrible Practice, but series leading nine road course wins make him a contender alone.   
* June 20 Sonoma Results, the only other road course NASCAR Sprint Cup event of the year.                    
Odds courtesy of the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book.
Micah Roberts, a former Race and Sports Book Director, has been setting NASCAR lines in Las Vegas since 1995. He currently writes for multiple publications covering all sports. He can be reached at

DENNY HAMLIN ON THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN SONOMA AND WATKINGS GLEN: “The first thing that jumps out is the fact that, compared to Sonoma, the Glen is a faster course. You need to be smart with the brakes, especially running down into turn one where you have your main opportunity for passing, and it’s a place where you are carrying a bunch of speed.  You are working to get the car slowed down and trying to turn as all of that weight is shifting to the front of the car under braking. Getting that brake balance right is really important.  At the Glen you are right on the throttle off the turns where at Sonoma it seems you are always waiting, searching for grip and have to be a little more cautious. Like Sonoma or any road course, you are also dealing with fuel strategy and that is always going to be a big factor.   You’ll see guys coming in right away to take fuel to set themselves up for the end, while others might choose to wait.  So much is determined by where you are when the cautions come out.  You do what you can to make the right decision for your car and your team, to put yourself in the best possible situation, but you can’t control what the other 42 cars are doing out there.  The Glen is still really technical – you need to be consistent and smooth because there are lots of ways to get in trouble, or throw off your momentum and you need that so you are in position should you have a chance to pass.”

KYLE BUSCH ON WHEN HE BECAME BETTER AT DRIVING ROAD COURSES: "I think I really hit it probably in ‘07, when I was still at Hendrick. I think I finished 10th out at Sonoma or something. We had an okay day. But then at Watkins Glen, I think I was running fifth or fourth, just passed Jeff Gordon, and that’s when my track bar broke and I went six laps down fixing that, got all the ‘Lucky Dogs’ to get back on the lead lap, and finished 12th. But we were really fast and we were good. I took that experience from ‘07 into ‘08 with the M&M’s car and Joe Gibbs Racing and we swept both races and were pretty good at it. I feel like I’m a relatively good road course racer. It took me a little bit to get used to it, to figure out how hard to charge the corners or how hard not to charge the corners, and different braking techniques.”
KURT BUSCH ON GETTING WRECKED BY JIMMIE JOHNSON AT POCONO: "He didn’t intentionally try and wreck us at Pocono, but it ended up that way. There might be some of that coming from my side of it.  I may not intentionally try to wreck him, but we’ve got a high car count of wrecked cars over at our shop and those guys on the 48, and even Jeff Gordon, with what he did to us at Sonoma, it’s been definitely a one-way street right now.”

compiled by Mike Forde
NASCAR Media Service
· After several events were held on the streets of Watkins Glen, a permanent facility was opened in 1956.
· The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was in 1957, won by Buck Baker.
· After a six-year absence, NASCAR returned to The Glen in 1964 and 1965.
· After a 21-year absence, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series returned to The Glen, and has run one race a year there since 1986. This weekend’s race will be the 25th running since its return in 1986.

Watkins Glen International Data
Race #: 22 of 36 (8-8-10)
Track Size: 2.45 miles
Race Length: 90 laps/220.5 miles

Driver Rating at Watkins Glen
Tony Stewart 135.0
Marcos Ambrose 106.9
Jimmie Johnson 106.5
Kyle Busch 104.9
Denny Hamlin 104.6
Juan Pablo Montoya 101.4
Kurt Busch 99.4
Carl Edwards 91.4
Robby Gordon 89.2
Jeff Gordon 88.9
Note: Driver Rating compiled from 2005-2009 races (4 total) at Watkins Glen.

Qualifying/Race Data
2009 pole winner: Jimmie Johnson (71.340 mph, 123.633)
2009 race winner: Tony Stewart, 90.297 mph, 8-10-09)
Track qualifying record: Jeff Gordon (124.580 mph, 70.798 seconds, 8-8-03)
Track race record: Mark Martin (103.300 mph, 8-13-95)
Estimated Pit Window: Every 30-32 laps, based on fuel mileage.

· There have been 27 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen International since the first race there in 1957.
· Buck Baker won the first pole and race.
· Tim Richmond won the first pole and race upon the series’ return in 1986.
· There have been 15 different pole winners.
· The race winner has started first in nine of 27 races. The last race winner to start from the pole was Kyle Busch in 2008.
· Mark Martin leads all drivers with wins from the pole with three in a row between 1993 and 1995.
· 17 of the 27 race winners have started from a top-five starting position.
· 19 of 27 races at Watkins Glen have been won from a top-10 starting position.
· The deepest in the field that a Watkins Glen race winner has started was 18th by Steve Park in 2000.
· 16 different drivers have won races, led by Tony Stewart, with five.
· Jeff Gordon set the all-time NASCAR Sprint Cup record for road-course victories with his victory in 2001, his seventh on a road course. He has since won two more (both at Infineon Raceway), for a career total of nine.
· Three active drivers with more than one start have an average finish in the top 10: Carl Edwards (8.8 in five starts), Denny Hamlin (7.5 in four starts), Mark Martin (7.8 in 20 starts), Tony Stewart (5.3 in 11 starts) and Marcos Ambrose (2.5 in two starts).
· Tony Stewart has a Driver Rating of 135.0 at Watkins Glen, the highest average rating by any driver at any track since the Loop Data statistic’s inception in 2005.

NASCAR in New York
· There have been 65 NASCAR Sprint Cup races in New York:
· 178 drivers in NASCAR’s three national series (all-time) have their home state recorded as New York.
· There have been 13 race winners from New York in NASCAR’s three national series.



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