The road course at Watkins Glen in upstate New York is the next stop on the NASCAR Sprint Cup series, as count down five more weeks until the playoffs start. “The Glen” as it’s casually referred to by racing fans hosts the Finger Lakes 355 on Sunday at noon EST, with the race telecast by ESPN.
Road-course racing is a unique phenomenon. The course is set up…well, like a road. Drivers have to make true right turns, the same way you or I might at a stop sign. “A lot of people don’t like road courses,” said TheSportsNotebook’s NASCAR consultant, my brother Bill. “But I like them and would like to see more. It shows a driver’s true skill.”
Indeed, road-course racing defies the conventional approach to racing enough that the last two winners at The Glen have been Marcus Ambrose and Juan Montoya, neither of whom are contenders in the overall Sprint Cup series, but both of whom driven in road-course series. “Other drivers have improved their game seeking out lessons from experienced road-course drivers,” Bill noted. “I’d like to see one more road-course race and have it be in the playoffs.”
Speaking of the playoffs, the push for positioning will be an overriding theme here on Sunday. Brad Keselowski, Tony Stewart and Jimmie Johnson have three wins apiece, and its wins that are going to matter more than points in the standings for the 12 drivers who qualify to drive in The Chase For The Cup in the final ten races of the season. The Top 10 points finishers are guaranteed spots in the Chase and those ten are secure in their position. To put it in perspective, 10th-place Clint Bowyer is 65 points out of first place, but a full 57 points ahead of the 11th-place driver, Kasey Kahne.
Two additional drivers qualify with the first criteria being number of wins, with points serving as a tiebreaker. Kahne, the only non-Top 10 driver with two wins, is in commanding position. Jeff Gordon got a game-changing win last Sunday and would take the second berth, as his 13th-place standing is the highest among the remaining drivers with one win. The drivers who can change the game again with a single win are led by Carl Edwards, in 12th place, and then Ryan Newman, Joey Logano or Kyle Busch, who trail Gordon in points but can move ahead of him with a win.
Sunday’s race, as the title indicates is only 355 miles, shorter than the norm, but as Bill points out the fact it’s a road course means it may actually take longer. It’s also less fluid, as passing is more difficult for obvious reasons and a driver who wants to make a move has to be aggressive on the natural turns. It’s going to be a grind on Sunday, but for a lot of drivers, the reward will be worth it.