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Watkins Glen Preview: The Pole is Half the Battle

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

This weekend the Sprint Cup Series visits Watkins Glen International for the final road course race for the season with its annual running of the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. This circuit is an 11-turn, winding road course with many long straights terminated by hair-pin turns. The race is 90 laps on the almost 2.5-mile course. Top speeds are close to 160 mph which is very unusual for a typical road circuit, and this is due in large part to the long straights which occur at three places on the track. Horse power and aero-handling are key factors for this race, so it's a bit different than the other road courses in NASCAR. As the drivers barrel down the straights and into sharp corners, we see more than a few go off course as they attempt aggressive accelerating maneuvers to make the pass. The teams that can stay on the course and out of the gravel traps or grass will collect a good finish on Sunday at the Glen. Aggressive driving is the key to victory, but qualifying up front is just as important. The drivers who get good starting spots on the grid are often the ones seen hoisting the trophy at the Glen.

Since the Sprint Cup Series races at Watkins Glen only once a season, we don't have a lot of statistics to go on this weekend. Fortunately, NASCAR keeps good loop data on the various tracks and these numbers will come in handy for this event. As the loop data will show, the drivers who typically do well at Watkins Glen will be a lot of the same faces we will see up front on Sunday afternoon. We'll take a look at the last six races at Watkins Glen and examine these numbers closely when forming our prognostications for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. The following table has the loop stats from the last six years or six races at Watkins Glen International.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Tony Stewart2.3150104145525129.6
Juan Pablo Montoya 12.51094676328113.5
Marcos Ambrose2.7724917195113.2
Kyle Busch10.31233267345102.1
Kurt Busch14.71424261392101.9
Jimmie Johnson12.0116149433100.0
Denny Hamlin13.412011036899.9
Carl Edwards8.211514037894.9
A.J. Allmendinger9.3533016191.9
Kevin Harvick17.310262835689.6
Jeff Gordon18.7112175431189.0
Jamie McMurray18.77381128085.2
Robby Gordon15.38711221383.0
Martin Truex Jr.16.41153026282.1
Ryan Newman18.31507929678.2
Boris Said24.09410024777.7
Greg Biffle22.7715025175.8
Jeff Burton26.3642025575.2
Matt Kenseth15.0780020374.8
Clint Bowyer18.8470014474.3


In its Sprint Cup history, the Glen has been won from the front two rows 17 times in the 28 total races run to date. That factors out to 61 percent of the winners coming from the first two starting rows. The pole winner has collected nine of those 28 wins. In fact, no winner of this race has started worse than 18th, so qualifying well is extremely important at this road circuit. As far as setting your weekly lineups this Sunday, you can take a good looking at qualifying on Friday and it will be a good indicator of what to expect in the race. Passing at the Glen is tricky and there are only a few key points on the track that it can be easily accomplished. The drivers that race Watkins Glen well know exactly where to pounce and make their move.

Tony Stewart is the active wins leader at Watkins Glen with five total victories. Smoke's glory at the New York road course is a story of dominance over roughly the last decade. He's won four of the last seven races at the Glen, and as recently as the 2009 season. Outside of Stewart, the biggest threats to sweep into victory lane this Sunday are likely Joe Gibbs Racing star Denny Hamlin and Penske Racing driver Kurt Busch. These two drivers aren't the only contenders for the win. Road Racing specialists Juan Pablo Montoya, who won this race one year ago, and Aussie Marcos Ambrose are clear threats to visit victory lane at the Glen. We'll take a look at the loop stats, recent history at the Glen and even look at this season's road course race at Sonoma to help give you the road racing experts to conquer your fantasy racing leagues this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kurt Busch –
The Penske Racing star is having an incredible season, and he comes to the Glen this week in search of his second victory in 2011. The driver of the No. 22 Dodge has only four career Top 10's at Watkins Glen, but three of them have come in the last three races at the New York road course. In this event one year ago, Busch qualified fifth and finished a career-best second. Considering his dominant win at Sonoma earlier this summer, the time could be right to see Busch in victory lane at Watkins Glen.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
When we think of road course racing, one Sprint Cup regular's name jumps right out at us. Montoya won his first career NASCAR race on a road course (Sonoma) and he's always been among the front runners each weekend the series visits the winding tracks. His luck at the Glen has been generally good, but last season the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver finally cashed-in with his first win at the track. He qualified third, led 74 laps and won in a very dominating performance. We'll see how well the No. 42 team defends their turf this Sunday afternoon.

Jeff Gordon –
Four-time Watkins Glen winner Gordon comes to the New York road course surging this weekend. Gordon collected his four victories between 1997 and 2001 at the Glen. Since then, the Hendrick Motorsports superstar has only two Top-10 finishes in his last nine starts at the track. This is no reason to discount the No. 24 Chevrolet team on Sunday. Gordon is back with a vengeance in 2011, since being paired with new crew chief Alan Gustafson. His runner-up finish earlier this summer at Infineon Raceway is evidence enough that the veteran driver still has elite skills on road courses.

Kevin Harvick –
The Richard Childress Racing veteran is a one-time winner at Watkins Glen and he manages to crack the Top 10 at the New York road course 50 percent of the time. Harvick has already won three races this season, and has proven to be one of the most dangerous drivers on the circuit right now. His last road course outing in Sonoma yielded five laps led and a brilliant Top-10 finish, so the No. 29 team should have a great car for this Sunday's Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson and the No. 48 team are looking to get back on a roll. He is winless in his last 12 starts and bad luck has contributed to his mediocre 12.7 average finish over that span. The defending Sprint Cup champion has never won at Watkins Glen, and that fact should change this Sunday. Johnson has posted some good performances at the New York road course over the years. He has two pole positions and four Top 10's in nine career starts at the facility. Johnson shouldn't have much trouble positing a finish similar to his seventh-place effort at Sonoma earlier this season.

Tony Stewart –
Smoke has dominated at Watkins Glen much of this decade. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is still winless this season, but that could easily change by this Sunday afternoon. If there is a sleeper in the field who can win, it is Stewart. He has won or finished runner-up in seven of the last nine races at Watkins Glen. You simply can't find this style of track-specific dominance in the Sprint Cup Series in this era of parity. Despite Stewart's ups-and-downs this season, you can't afford to not have him your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

Marcos Ambrose –
The quest to win in the Sprint Cup Series continues this weekend for the JTG Daugherty Racing driver. The Glen has provided Ambrose with the best opportunity to win in NASCAR's top division since he entered the series three years ago. He cracked the Top 5 at Infineon Raceway for the second time in his career earlier this summer. Ambrose has flirted with winning in each of his Glen starts with third-, second- and third-place finishes each of the last three seasons. The driver of the No. 47 Toyota is a must-start for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen.

Kyle Busch –
It was a difficult choice putting Busch in the solid plays list as opposed to the contenders list, but we felt the No. 18 team's recent inconsistency makes him more of the solid play variety at the Glen. Busch won this race in 2008 and he is riding a five-race Top 10 streak at Watkins Glen International entering this weekend. Considering his record at this course, we have to give a hearty recommendation to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team for this Sunday afternoon at the Glen.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Watkins Glen who can provide a solid finish

Carl Edwards –
The back-flipping Roush Fenway Racing star is leading the championship standings coming to the Glen this week. While Edwards has never won at the New York road course, he's been incredibly consistent. Given his history, it's very likely that Edwards will pilot the No. 99 Ford into the Top 10 at Watkins Glen International. He is riding a string of five consecutive Top-10 finishes at the track and that includes winning the pole and finishing fifth here one year ago. Edwards is fresh off a seventh-place finish at Pocono entering this event, so momentum is on his side.

Denny Hamlin –
With this fantasy racing selection comes some risk, but the upside could be tremendous. Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team have had some decent performances recently. However, the team and driver are capable of being Top 5 threats each weekend. Hamlin has the resume at the Glen to back this fact up. Up until last year's crash and DNF at the Glen he was four-for-four in starts and Top-10 finishes at the winding road course. This past Sunday Hamlin showed some muscle by leading the most laps at Pocono Raceway, so a repeat performance could be in store this weekend.

A.J. Allmendinger –
The Dinger should be a selection in everyone's weekly lineup leagues this week. Road courses have been very favorable for him during his brief Sprint Cup career and certainly this season as well. In looking back just a few short weeks ago to Sonoma, Allmendinger piloted the No. 43 Ford to a solid 13th-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. That was no fluke, as he also sports a respectable average finish of 9.3 in three career starts at the Glen. Nothing screams "Top 15" like Allmendinger this Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. –
Just when this season looked like a complete wash from both a fantasy and reality perspective for Truex Jr. and his No. 56 team, he's put together a nice run of five Top 10's in the last 12 races. Truex is again worthy of weekly fantasy racing lineup consideration. He visits a Watkins Glen road course this Sunday that has yielded some ripe fruits for his Michael Waltrip Racing team recently. Three of his five career starts at this facility have netted Top-15 finishes. Considering his recent eighth-place finish at Infineon Raceway a few short weeks ago, we should be poised to see another great effort from this driver and team.

Brad Keselowski –
The next rising star in NASCAR appears to be Keselowski. After winning the 2010 Nationwide Series championship, he's got his sites set on his first Chase for the Cup appearance in 2011. With two wins on the season now after his big Pocono victory, the No. 2 team has to be taken very seriously. Keselowski has only one career start in a Cup car at the Glen and it yielded a 20th-place finish last season. Don't let that concern you. The Penske Racing driver's 10th-place effort at the road course in Sonoma a few weeks ago is likely a better barometer of what to expect in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen.

David Gilliland –
If you have to go deep into your bench this weekend, or stretch those starts in the Yahoo Fantasy Racing game, you might consider Gilliland and the Front Row Motorsports team this week. While Gilliland's Watkins Glen stats aren't stellar, he did achieve a respectable 27th-place finish here one year ago. More recently, the driver of the No. 38 Ford finished a very surprising 12th in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway. Gilliland can wheel a car around a road course, so let him prove it to you this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Despite his Top-10 finish this past Sunday at Pocono Raceway, we have to downgrade the No. 88 team at Watkins Glen. Earnhardt has shown that he can turn fast laps at this facility over the years, but he has never been able to put a complete race together at the Glen for 90 laps. Despite leading nearly 50 career laps at the New York road course, he's only managed three Top 10's in 12 starts there. Earnhardt's best finish with current team owner Rick Hendrick at the Glen is a lowly 22nd. He may prove us wrong this Sunday afternoon, but he's just far too risky to start at Watkins Glen International.

David Ragan –
It's not often this season that we find Ragan in our flops list. This year has been a real rebound effort for the No. 6 team. Ragan has six Top 10's to this point in the season and enters this race 19th in the championship standings. However, his poor 29th-place finish at Infineon Raceway earlier this season likely foreshadows what to expect at the Glen. Ragan has never cracked the Top 20 in four career starts at Watkins Glen International. That stat is a hard one to shake going into this week's race.

Robby Gordon –
One-time Watkins Glen winner Gordon comes to the New York road course this weekend looking to revive old times at the facility. Over the years Gordon has achieved more success on the series' road circuits than on the ovals. However, his recent string of races on these tracks hasn't measured up to his high standards of performance. Gordon owns seven career Top 10's at the Glen, but none in his last three starts. If his subpar 18th-place finish at Sonoma is any indication, we can now write off what's left of Gordon's road racing value.

Boris Said –
Veteran road course expert Said will take to the track this weekend at Watkins Glen for his 11th career Sprint Cup start there. While he wields much more success at Sonoma, the Glen has been not as good for Said over the years. With only two career Top 10's to show for, and the last of those coming in 2005, you may want to look elsewhere for your fantasy racing help this weekend. Even Said's 28th-place finish at Sonoma recently doesn't measure up to his high standards at these facilities. Don't be fooled into picking up or starting Said at the Glen this Sunday afternoon.