NASCAR Barometer: Larson Wins Dramatic Watkins Glen Race

NASCAR Barometer: Larson Wins Dramatic Watkins Glen Race

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Watkins Glen International produced a dramatic wet and dry race Sunday in the build up to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Chase Elliott wrapped up the regular-season championship and looked likely to win the race, but teammate Kyle Larson put a damper on the No. 9's celebrations with a late-race restart that shuffled Elliott to fourth and left Larson to outrun AJ Allmendinger to the checkered flag. The win was the second of the season for Larson, and it left the battle for the final playoff spot much the same as before with Ryan Blaney holding a 25-point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. in 17th. 

The afternoon started with a delay for lightning, and when racing finally got underway, the drivers were handed wet conditions that rapidly switched to drying pavement. The hectic first stage was a duel between wet and dry tires, with the dry option winning out at the end, as Chase Briscoe captured the first segment win. The first stage also set the fuel strategy for the race, as teams worked save fuel to reduce the number of stops they would need. Elliott proved to be the fastest throughout the changing conditions, but one final caution bunched the top contenders together and Elliott was the one who lost out. The next race at Daytona can serve as a victory lap for the 15 drivers locked into the playoffs before the championship battle kicks off a week later, but it will be a stressful affair for Blaney

Watkins Glen International produced a dramatic wet and dry race Sunday in the build up to the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. Chase Elliott wrapped up the regular-season championship and looked likely to win the race, but teammate Kyle Larson put a damper on the No. 9's celebrations with a late-race restart that shuffled Elliott to fourth and left Larson to outrun AJ Allmendinger to the checkered flag. The win was the second of the season for Larson, and it left the battle for the final playoff spot much the same as before with Ryan Blaney holding a 25-point advantage over Martin Truex Jr. in 17th. 

The afternoon started with a delay for lightning, and when racing finally got underway, the drivers were handed wet conditions that rapidly switched to drying pavement. The hectic first stage was a duel between wet and dry tires, with the dry option winning out at the end, as Chase Briscoe captured the first segment win. The first stage also set the fuel strategy for the race, as teams worked save fuel to reduce the number of stops they would need. Elliott proved to be the fastest throughout the changing conditions, but one final caution bunched the top contenders together and Elliott was the one who lost out. The next race at Daytona can serve as a victory lap for the 15 drivers locked into the playoffs before the championship battle kicks off a week later, but it will be a stressful affair for Blaney and Truex as the pair duke it out for the final remaining playoff position. However, a 16th different winner could still spoil championship hopes for both.

UPGRADE

Kyle Larson – Larson only led five laps Sunday, but they were the most important, as he held off Allmendinger and took the checkered flag for his second victory of the season. The opportunity for him to take the lead came on the final restart of the race as he lined up alongside teammate Elliott on the front row. Larson drove deep into turn 1, forcing Elliott wide to move into first. Allmendinger also got by Elliott and put up a stiff challenge to Larson from behind, but he couldn't get close enough to make a move as Larson drove to the race win. Much will be made about the turn 1 move that got Larson the lead, but fantasy players shouldn't read too much into it, as both drivers will put it behind them to fully focus on the impending playoffs.

Chase Elliott – Elliott led early Sunday but was one of the last to make the switch to dry tires and lost significant time trying to stretch his first stop. However, his effort in the stage was enough to guarantee he would grab enough points to clinch the regular-season championship and the 15 playoff points that come along with it. After falling behind at the end of the first stage, the team used fuel strategy to get the No. 9 back to the front, leaving Elliott as the fastest car on track for much of the race. Things were shaping up to see Elliott drive to the win, but it all came undone with late caution periods. Elliott eventually slipped to fourth as teammate Larson got the better of him on the final restart, losing three spots as he was pushed wide. Elliott has never won at Daytona, but he does have three pole positions there and finished in the top 10 in all of his last four starts at the track.

Joey Logano – Logano grabbed his fourth stage win and the bonus point that comes along with it, holding off Kyle Busch to take the checked flag of Sunday's second segment. The pace he showed was no fluke, either. Logano spent most of the day racing among the top 10 and walked away with a confidence-boosting third-place finish. With Sunday's result, he has now finished sixth or better in the last four races and has a good chance at another top finish this week at Daytona, too. Despite only having one top-10 finish in his last seven Daytona races, Logano has led at least one lap in all of those appearances. He is also the 2015 Daytona 500 champion. Don't look now, but the No. 22 team has been quietly building its arsenal for the playoffs and could be well positioned to give Logano another final four appearance.

Daniel Suarez – Another top-five finish Sunday gave Suarez six top-fives so far this season. Three of those finishes have come on road courses, one of which was his first series victory at Sonoma. Sunday's fifth-place at Watkins Glen was also Suarez's second top-five in the last five races, and it ended a three-race skid of finishes 19th or lower. Trackhouse Racing has been consistently fast at every type of track this season, which has given Suarez the opportunity to show his potential for arguably the first time in his Cup Series career. The former Xfinity Series champion has been in position to win multiple times this season, winning once so far, and could conceivably visit Victory Lane again before the year is over. To continue progressing, his focus this week at Daytona should be on eliminating mistakes for the 10-race playoff run.

Chase Briscoe – Briscoe was the first to make the move to dry tires Sunday, and he promptly started turning in fastest laps with the brave gamble. His speed dragged other teams to pit road to make the switch, which put Briscoe in position to capitalize, taking the lead and winning the first stage. It was a brave move from the team that paid off with another playoff point. The No. 14 remained fast the remainder of the race but lost track position, making it difficult to get back to the front. That loss of position bit painfully when hard racing in the bus stop saw Briscoe spin along with Ross Chastain with less than 30 laps remaining. That incident was too much to overcome, and Briscoe's day ended in 25th position. Briscoe's best Daytona finish came this past February when he finished third.

DOWNGRADE

Kyle Busch – While Busch is locked into the 2022 playoffs, he isn't locked into a ride beyond the end of the season. As weeks go by with no deal, Busch looks more and more likely to be exiting Joe Gibbs Racing, and his recent race results haven't been helping alleviate that stress. Sunday's 32nd-place finish at Watkins Glen was Busch's third finish worse than 30th in the last five races. The on-track pace of the No. 18 has been there, but mistakes and bad luck have kept Busch from the top finishes fantasy players are used to. Busch is focusing on making the best decision for his future, and the off-track distractions may be weighing down his on-track results. With his recent string of bad luck, it might be wise to think twice this week at Daytona where he has just two top-10s in the last 11 races.

Ty Gibbs – A weekend of races at Watkins Glen should have been a good thing for Gibbs, but the young driver came away with little to show for it. Gibbs was one of the fastest cars in Saturday's Xfinity Series race, but late contact while battling for the lead left him with a 26th-place finish. His road course prowess should have also given him a boost Sunday in the Cup Series, but that effort was left wanting as well. Gibbs was largely anonymous throughout Sunday's race, spending most of his time outside of the top-15 runners, which will have been disappointing for fantasy players expecting more considering his Xfinity road course success. Gibbs will have at least one more Cup race this week at Daytona before Kurt Busch returns. He finished 11th there earlier this year in his only Xfinity Series start at the track.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex was hoping some of his past road course magic would return last week. Unfortunately, it did not. Truex just couldn't find the speed he needed to push his way further forward in the running order. Making things worse, he couldn't separate himself from playoff rival Ryan Blaney either. The pair qualified next to one another and then finished the race next to each other as well. Truex has a 25-point point gap to close this week at Daytona if he hopes to be one of the 16 playoff contenders, but Blaney will be doing everything he can to ensure that doesn't happen. Truex has never won at Daytona, and his best finish in the last three races at the track was 13th in February's Daytona 500. Blaney has two top-fives from his last two Daytona visits. Everything is going to have to go right this week for Truex to be in this season's playoffs.

William Byron – Despite having potential for a top finish Sunday with a fourth-place qualifying effort, Byron could not maintain the pace of his teammates and finished 22nd. Byron's weekend started with a battle for the Xfinity Series victory on Saturday that ended with contact with Gibbs. His Saturday pace and his fourth-place starting spot for Sunday should have then set him up as one of the favorites for Sunday, but that potential did not materialize in the race. Byron has been finding it tough to get some success as the playoffs approach with his last top-10 finish coming back at Sonoma in June. In fact, that ninth-place finish is his only top-10 result since his win at Martinsville in April. With only Daytona left on the schedule before the playoffs begin, Byron may be entering the championship fight more on the back foot than others.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Michael McDowell – Fantasy players have long known McDowell to be a top option on road courses, but he had never scored a top-10 at Watkins Glen until Sunday. The wet conditions to start the race saw him come out swinging in the early laps, pushing hard at the front of the field and leading 14 laps. The wet wasn't his only advantage either. McDowell remained one of the top contenders throughout the evening and walked away with an impressive sixth-place finish, his 10th top-10 finish of the season. Fantasy players will have to consider him a serious contender for the win again this week at Daytona, too. Like at road courses, McDowell has a history of racing at the front on superspeedways, and he might be many people's choice to become the 16th different winner of the season this week at Daytona.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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