Cheez-It 355k Preview: Mastering the Glen

Cheez-It 355k Preview: Mastering the Glen

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

This weekend the Sprint Cup Series visits Watkins Glen International for the final road course race of the season with its annual running of the Cheez-It 355k at the Glen. This circuit is an 8-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 mainly 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 braking and 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 this Sunday at the Glen. Over the last few seasons we've seen NASCAR racing on the road circuits turn from more of a finesse game and into a fender-beating battle similar to what you would see on the series' short tracks. Aggressive driving is essential to victory, but qualifying up front on the starting grid is even more important. The drivers who get good starting spots are often the ones seen hoisting the trophy at the end of the day at the Glen. Making green-flag passes

This weekend the Sprint Cup Series visits Watkins Glen International for the final road course race of the season with its annual running of the Cheez-It 355k at the Glen. This circuit is an 8-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 mainly 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 braking and 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 this Sunday at the Glen. Over the last few seasons we've seen NASCAR racing on the road circuits turn from more of a finesse game and into a fender-beating battle similar to what you would see on the series' short tracks. Aggressive driving is essential to victory, but qualifying up front on the starting grid is even more important. The drivers who get good starting spots are often the ones seen hoisting the trophy at the end of the day at the Glen. Making green-flag passes here is difficult, so start up front and finish up front is the key to success at Watkins 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 have a history of racing well at this fast, rolling facility. We'll take a look at the last 11 races at Watkins Glen and examine these numbers closely when forming our prognostications for the Cheez-It 355k at the Glen. The following table has the loop stats from the last 11 years or 11 races at Watkins Glen International.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Tony Stewart11.4201106145734116.1
Kyle Busch10.521088191726109.9
A.J. Allmendinger10.1121215841999.9
Brad Keselowski11.383446637099.4
Jimmie Johnson11.9219301674598.4
Carl Edwards8.421621472395.1
Kurt Busch15.8211536162094.5
Kevin Harvick13.5168216562592.9
Martin Truex Jr.13.719317559790.8
Kyle Larson8.0197010689.7
Jeff Gordon23.4166428950185.1
Denny Hamlin20.719211052684.4
Joey Logano14.3915132584.1
Clint Bowyer14.81252149383.9
Jamie McMurray21.214191250081.5
Matt Kenseth13.51481251081.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.22.917593453078.8
Ryan Newman18.82057946976.5
Greg Biffle19.21295042676.3
Kasey Kahne21.81713335971.3

In its Sprint Cup history, the Glen has been won from the front three rows 23 times in the 33 total races run to-date. That factors out to a whopping 70-percent of the winners coming from the first three starting rows. The pole winner has collected nine of those 33 wins. In fact, no winner of this race has started worse than 18th, so qualifying well is extremely important at this winding road course. The winner of this race one year ago, Joey Logano, started 16th on the grid, so he was a rare exception to this rule. The Penske Racing star snapped a five-race string of front-three row winners at the Glen with his surprising victory from deeper within the field last season. As far as setting your weekly fantasy lineups this Sunday, you can take a long look at pole-qualifying this Friday and it will be a good indicator of what to expect in this race.

Passing at the Glen can be 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 won all those events between 2002 and 2009, and has struggled here in more recent outings. Stewart has been improving in recent weeks but we don't see him as a major threat to win Sunday at the Glen.

We have to look to other drivers who have dominated more recently at the New York road course. The biggest threats to sweep into victory lane this Sunday are likely Penske Racing star Logano and Joe Gibbs Racing star Kyle Busch. The pair finished one-two in last season's Cheez-It 355k and both are racing well entering this weekend's event. Outside of this pair, A.J. Allmendinger gets a fantasy racing upgrade this weekend. He won this event two years ago, and he won the pole here and led 21 laps last season before falling back in the field. The driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet carries that homerun threat with him each time we visit a road course, especially 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

Kyle Busch –
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been on fire the last six weeks. Were it not for weather and pit strategy issues this past week at Pocono Busch could easily be a two-time winner in the last six races. The veteran driver won this race in 2008 and 2013, and he's a two-time pole-winner at the New York road circuit. Busch has led close to 200 laps in his 11 Watkins Glen starts, so he knows what it takes to run up front here. This is a race track for aggressive drivers, and that's exactly what Busch is without a doubt. Considering the runner-up performance he had in this event one year ago, we have to give a hearty recommendation to the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 team for this Sunday afternoon at the Glen.

Joey Logano –
Logano has a short but successful resume at the Glen. In his last three trips to the winding circuit, he's claimed one win and three Top-10 finishes. Great Top-5 runs in five of the last eight races have set this team in motion to make the Chase for the fourth-straight season. The No. 22 Ford team has been strong of late, but missing some luck as was demonstrated this past weekend at Pocono. The young Penske Racing star should ride another fast hot rod into Watkins Glen this weekend. In this event one year ago he out-dueled Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch on the last lap to capture his first-career victory at the Glen. All indicators point to a strong challenge for the win in Sunday's race at the 8-turn road course.

Brad Keselowski –
The Penske Racing star is looking to return to the dominant driver we saw a few weeks ago at Daytona and Kentucky. Keselowski is coming off a runner-up Pocono finish and looking to keep the momentum rolling this weekend. With six-career starts at the Glen, he has some pretty impressive numbers for a short resume. After a 20th-place finish in his debut in 2010, he has claimed runner-up finishes in three of his last five starts at the New York road course. It's clear that the driver of the No. 2 Ford likes racing at this venue much more than the road course in California, and the statistics bear this out. Keselowski should be a challenger for the win in the Cheez-It 355k.

Kevin Harvick –
Coming off the mildly-disappointing Top-5 finish at Pocono Raceway, Harvick sets his sights to win on the 8-turn road course in New York. It's been a track of mixed results over the years for the Stewart Haas Racing star. Harvick has eight-career Top-10 finishes in 15 starts which work out to a steady 53-percent rate. His latest efforts have netted seventh- and third-place finishes. The road courses haven't been the greatest venues for the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet, but we have to remember that Harvick did win earlier in his career at this facility. He led 29 laps in this event one year ago before letting the win slip away to Logano. Harvick will be out for payback this Sunday afternoon.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

A.J. Allmendinger –
The not-so-obvious fantasy racing play this week is Allmendinger and his No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing team. Allmendinger's Watkins Glen stats are pretty stellar, he won this event two years ago and he has four Top 10s in seven-career starts at the New York road course. More recently, he won the pole position in last year's Cheez-It 355k and led 21 laps before changing race strategy saddled him with a 24th-place finish. In the road course race at Sonoma earlier this season, the veteran driver sat on the outside pole and led 20 laps in that event before finishing 14th. Allmendinger can wheel a stock car around a road course. There's no doubt about that. Let him prove it to you this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Matt Kenseth –
We normally don't think of Kenseth when it comes to road course racing, but his stats at the Glen have been turning positive in recent outings. Since moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2013, he's been reversing career trends at this track. The style of racing at this facility differs from most road courses and it plays better to Kenseth's strengths as a driver. Kenseth has grabbed three Top-10 finishes in his last four starts at Watkins Glen. That's boosted his career Top-10 rate at the winding circuit to a more respectable 38-percent. Coming off Top-10 finishes in three of the last four events entering this weekend, how can we not like the driver of the No. 20 Toyota this week?

Kurt Busch –
The Stewart Haas Racing star is riding in cruise control coming to Watkins Glen. Not out of complacency, but his one win and 16 Top 10s have him well positioned in the standings. Busch is a great road course driver as his Sonoma and Watkins Glen resumes will attest. While he only has one pole position and seven Top 10s at the New York road course in 15 career starts, his success has come more recently at the facility. The driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet rides a three-race Watkins Glen Top-10 streak into Sunday's battle, and that includes his fifth-place finish in this event one year ago. Busch qualified fourth and finished 10th at the Sonoma road course earlier this summer, and he should surpass that mark Sunday afternoon at the Glen.

Carl Edwards –
The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time winner at Sonoma and he's always performed well at the Glen. He has never won at the New York road course, but he's been incredibly consistent. Given Edwards' history, it's very likely that he will pilot the team's Toyota Camry into the Top 5 at Watkins Glen International and may even challenge for the win. He boasts one pole position and five Top 5s in 11 career starts at the New York road circuit, and he's never finished outside the Top 20 in those starts. Edwards finished an impressive eighth in this race one year ago, so there's a very good chance the No. 19 team could continue their road course success this weekend. The veteran driver won the pole and finished fourth at Sonoma a few weeks ago, so Edwards is tuned up for this road course battle.

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

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson and the No. 48 team are looking to shake off some recent bad luck and rebound to the Top 10 at Watkins Glen. He showed some very positive signs at Pocono Raceway this past weekend but there's still some work to do. The six-time Sprint Cup champion has never won at Watkins Glen, but that fact shouldn't discourage you from fantasy racing deployment this weekend. Johnson has posted some good performances at the New York road course over the years. He has two pole positions and eight Top 10s in 14 career starts at the facility. Johnson's 57-percent Top-10 rate at Watkins Glen is well above the norm for drivers in the Sprint Cup Series.

Martin Truex Jr. –
In what has been a good season for the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet, the tracks that bring out his best get our upmost attention. Truex proves to be a worthy fantasy racing play on his better tracks. He is again worthy of weekly fantasy racing lineup consideration with a visit to the Watkins Glen road course this Sunday that has yielded some good finishes over his Sprint Cup career. Five of his 10-career starts at this facility have netted Top-10 finishes. Considering that Truex has the fastest car on the track at Pocono this past weekend before a freak flat tire took him out, we think you have to expect the Furniture Row Racing team to rebound at Watkins Glen International.

Tony Stewart –
Smoke has dominated at Watkins Glen much of his long NASCAR career. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet stacked up five victories at the Glen from 2002 to 2009. Things slowed down for Stewart between 2011 and 2015 at the 8-turn road course. However, the dynamic driver is rebounding well in the second-half of his final season of NASCAR racing. Stewart engineered an impressive win at the California road course a few weeks ago, and that boost has given this team momentum. The veteran driver has three Top 10s in the five events since his big Sonoma win. He must be licking his chops coming to one of his better tracks on the circuit this weekend. Stewart boasts a still very lofty 67-percent career Top-10 rate here despite his poor recent outings.

Kyle Larson –
With only two-career starts at the Glen the sample size is small but the results are hard to overlook. Larson came to New York and claimed an impressive fourth-place finish in 2014. He followed that effort up last year with a steady 12th-place finish. Those performances were not lost on us and neither was his outing at the Sonoma road course earlier this summer. Larson qualified a strong fifth on the starting grid and claimed a Top-15 finish after 110 laps at the challenging Sonoma road circuit. The No. 42 team is fresh off an impressive Top-10 performance at Pocono this past weekend. Larson should be a Top-15 finisher at Watkins Glen International.

Greg Biffle –
While Biffle's performances on ovals the last couple seasons has suffered, his level of performance has remained pretty high on road circuits. The winding tracks are a bit of an equalizer for this struggling No. 16 Ford team. Biffle's last four visits to Watkins Glen has yielded a pair of Top-10 and four Top-16 finishes. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has three Top-10 finishes in his last five starts leading up to this weekend, so momentum has been building for this driver and team. Biffle led 14 laps and raced up front for big parts of this past weekend's Pocono race before weather relegated him to a sub-par finish. He should surprise at the Glen this Sunday afternoon.

Casey Mears –
When we visit Watkins Glen, we have to look to those performers over the years that have clearly shown a talent for navigating this tough road course. Mears fits that bill. In 12-career starts he's posted one Top-5 finish and nine Top-20 finishes. In fact, he's never failed to finish here and has always been running at the end. With only two finishes outside the Top 30, that's a good measure of security for your fantasy racing lineup. All-in-all he should finish somewhere close to his career average of 18.7 this Sunday afternoon. In terms of average finish, Watkins Glen is Mears' best track in his Sprint Cup Series resume.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jeff Gordon –
After finishes of 13th- and 27th- the last two weeks filling in for Dale Earnhardt Jr., it's become clear that the new Sprint Cup car doesn't handle quite as well as Gordon would like. He's not looked comfortable in the No. 88 Chevrolet since taking on relief driver duty. We realize that a loose seat belt contributed to his poor Pocono finish, but it was still an uphill battle for Gordon. Now we come to a track that has held nothing but struggles for the NASCAR legend over the latter stages of his career. He won four events at the Glen between 1997 and 2001, but he hit the skids 2008 and beyond. Gordon's last eight starts at the New York road course hold only one Top-10 finish. That trend is not likely to change in the Cheez-It 355k.

Denny Hamlin –
With this fantasy racing selection comes some serious risks, and to us makes for a non-starter this weekend at the Glen. Hamlin and the No. 11 Toyota team have had their struggles this season, but things have turned positive of late with a three-race Top-10 streak entering the Glen. The Joe Gibbs Racing star was a big hit at the New York road course earlier in his career with Top 10s in his first four starts. However, he's fallen on hard times the last few seasons with DNF's in three of his last six trips to Watkins Glen International. In this event one year ago Hamlin qualified 13th but finished a distant 27th in that Cheez-It 355k. He's not cracked the Top 15 at this track since 2009.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
It was announced this week that Earnhardt will be on the sidelines for the next two Sprint Cup Series races. He's still battling concussion-like symptoms and can't be medically cleared to compete. So that means no Earnhardt at both Watkins Glen and the following week at Bristol. The Glen has been a tough course over the years for the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet anyway. With only three Top-10 finishes in 16 starts and a lowly 21.7 average finish at the facility, it would have been a tough return to action had Earnhardt been medically cleared this weekend.

Clint Bowyer –
Bowyer is what we consider to be a proficient road course driver, but his transition season at HScott Motorsports needs to weigh into the equation this week. The veteran driver has three Watkins Glen Top 10s in his last four starts entering Sunday, but those were all for Michael Waltrip Racing. Bowyer had a decent car at the Sonoma road circuit earlier this summer, but a freak electrical fire in the No. 15 Chevrolet on lap 5 nullified any hopes for a Sonoma Top 10. It's been that kind of bad luck and bad equipment that has held Bowyer to just three Top-10 finishes so far this season. Prospects for a good Watkins Glen outing are questionable at best.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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