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Watkins Glen Preview: Qualifying is Key

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

Watkins Glen International hosts 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 course, 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.

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 five races at Watkins Glen and dissect these numbers when forming our prognostications for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. The following table has the loop stats from the last five years or five races at Watkins Glen International.

Tony Stewart1.4126104145438135.0
Marcos Ambrose2.546279105106.9
Jimmie Johnson8.890119407106.5
Kyle Busch10.81063267292104.9
Denny Hamlin7.5101110306104.6
Juan Pablo Montoya 16.391152238101.4
Kurt Busch17.2116396130599.4
Carl Edwards8.810313028991.4
Robby Gordon11.28311219689.2
Jeff Gordon20.484175422888.9
Kevin Harvick18.68552828688.7
Martin Truex Jr.16.8923024083.1
Jamie McMurray21.2614619280.4
A.J. Allmendinger12.039007179.4
Clint Bowyer15.5460013177.7
Boris Said21.27610019277.6
Ryan Newman19.61187823676.7
Dale Earnhardt Jr.26.28873420875.2
Matt Kenseth15.4590017774.5
Greg Biffle22.4593018973.7

In its Sprint Cup history, the Glen has been won from the front two rows 16 times in the 27 total races run to date. That factors out to 59 percent of the winners coming from the first two starting rows. The pole winner has collected nine of those 27 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 five of the last eight races at the Glen, including this event one year ago. Outside of Stewart, the biggest threats to sweep into victory lane this Sunday are likely Joe Gibbs Racing star Kyle Busch and championship standings leader Kevin Harvick. These two drivers are the only competitors to keep Stewart from being "perfect" at Watkins Glen the last eight years. We'll take all of this into account and even look at this season's 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

Tony Stewart
Simply put, Smoke has dominated at Watkins Glen much of this decade. The championship standings leader is still winless this season, but that shouldn't be much of a concern coming into this weekend's race. Stewart has won or finished runner-up in each of the last six races at Watkins Glen. You can't find this kind of track-specific dominance in the Sprint Cup Series in this era of parity. You can't afford to not have the owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet in your lineups this weekend.

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 around 55 percent of the time. Harvick has already won two 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 a brilliant third-place finish, so the No. 29 team should have a great car for this event.

Marcos Ambrose
The quest to win in the Sprint Cup Series continues this weekend for the Australian. The Glen has provided Ambrose with the best opportunity to win in NASCAR's top division since he entered the series two years ago. Ambrose's road racing skills need not be reiterated. He narrowly missed winning at Infineon Raceway earlier this season after a mental error cost him the victory late in the race. Ambrose has flirted with winning in each of his Glen starts with third- and second-place finishes each of the last two seasons.

Jimmie Johnson
Johnson and the No. 48 team are looking to get back on a roll. He is winless in his last four starts and bad luck has contributed to his 22.0 average finish over that span. Although the defending Sprint Cup champion has never won at Watkins Glen, that shouldn't be a factor this weekend. Johnson has one pole and three Top 10's in his last five visits to the facility. The No. 48 team's dominant win at Sonoma earlier this season underscores Johnson's improving road-racing ability.

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

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, with solid Top-10 finishes in each of his last two trips to the New York road course. We should see an effort on Sunday similar to Montoya's workmanlike 10th-place finish at Infineon Raceway a few weeks ago.

Kasey Kahne
Although Kahne's never cracked the Top 10 at Watkins Glen, don't let that me a deterrent against starting him in your fantasy lineups this weekend. The driver of the No. 9 Ford has been solid in recent weeks, with four Top 10's in his last seven races. Kahne's road racing skills don't capture much media attention, but he does posses them. Remember, he won the pole position at Sonoma earlier and finished a stellar fourth in the Toyota/Save Mart 350.

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 sub-par 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. He's four-for-four in starts and Top-10 finishes at the winding road course. With the team coming off the big Pocono Top 5, the star Joe Gibbs Racing driver is heating up.

Carl Edwards
The back-flipping Roush Fenway Racing star is still seeking his first win of the season. It's not likely to come this Sunday at Watkins Glen. However, it's more likely that Edwards will pilot the No. 99 Ford into the Top 10 at the New York road course. He is riding a string of four consecutive Top-10 finishes at the track and has never finished worse than 19th at the facility. Edwards is also riding a four-race Top 10 streak entering this event, so momentum is on his side.

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

Kyle Busch
It was a difficult choice putting Busch in the sleepers list as opposed to the solid plays list, but we felt the No. 18 team's recent inconsistency carries some risk with this selection at the Glen. Busch won this race in 2008 and he has four Top-10 finishes in five starts at Watkins Glen International. Considering his record at this course, we have to buck recent performance and include him in the sleepers list with the asterisk of tremendous upside for this race.

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 12.0 in two career starts at the Glen. Nothing screams "Top 15" like Allmendinger this Sunday.

Robby Gordon
Just when this season looked like a complete wash from both a fantasy and reality perspective for owner/driver Gordon and his No. 7 team, he pulled out a huge runner-up performance at Sonoma a few weeks ago. Ovals have still been difficult for Gordon, but we have to take him very seriously on the road circuits. Of the two in the Sprint Cup schedule, the Glen has always been his favorite. Gordon is a one-time winner at Watkins Glen and he sports a fantastic 64 percent Top 5 rate at the winding course.

Boris Said
Veteran road course expert Said will take to the track this weekend at Watkins Glen for his 10th career Sprint Cup start there. To this point Said has two Top 10's at the New York road course. While we wouldn't expect him to crack the Top 10 this Sunday either, he's still good enough to forge a Top-20 finish on just his road racing skills alone. Said led eight laps and finished a surprising eighth at Sonoma earlier this season for the Latitude 43 Motorsports team.

Kurt Busch
Busch commands a lot of respect in the Sprint Cup Series garage area at the series' many ovals, but he also gets a nod from his peers for his road racing skills as well. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge has only three career Top 10's at Watkins Glen, but two of them have come in each of the last two seasons. In this event one year ago, Busch qualified on the outside pole, led 23 laps and finished a solid seventh.

Jamie McMurray
With an average finish of 20.1, Watkins Glen does not appear to be one of McMurray's best tracks. This is true, but we have to throw the record books out the window this weekend in light of the career season he is having with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and the No. 1 team. McMurray did finish has high as third at the Glen in 2006 and that didn't happen by accident. His Top 15 run at Infineon Raceway would seem to indicate a similar performance in store for the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Gordon
It's nearly impossible to believe that we've moved four-time Glen winner Gordon to the flops list this week. The major reason for this downgrade is his recent performances at the New York road course. Gordon collected his four victories between 1997 and 2001 at Watkins Glen. Since then, the Hendrick Motorsports superstar has only one Top-10 finish in his last eight starts at the track. Gordon's painful, spectacular crash and DNF in this event one year ago is still fresh in our memory.

Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish has only two career starts at Watkins Glen, but it's his stats on road courses in general during his brief NASCAR career that has us most concerned this Sunday. In five career Sprint Cup starts on road circuits, the Penske Racing driver has yet to crack the Top 30. In two career Nationwide Series starts on road courses, he's only managed a mediocre 24.5 average finish position. It's clear that fantasy racing owners should steer clear of the No. 77 Dodge in this event.

Jeff Burton
It's not often that we find Mr. Consistency in our flops list. This season has been a real rebound effort for the No. 31 team. Burton has 11 Top 10's to this point in the season and enters this race fifth in the championship standings. However, his poor 27th-place finish at Infineon Raceway earlier this season likely foreshadows what to expect at the Glen. Burton has only three Top 10's in 16 career starts at Watkins Glen International, and his last seven visits to the New York road course have been so poor that we're beginning to question the veteran driver's road-racing skills.

Brad Keselowski
The talented young driver of the No. 12 Dodge is the second Penske Racing driver in our flops list this week. We're not picking on Keselowski, just realizing that he's yet to have enough seat time in the Sprint Cup Series cars to figure out road racing. This will be his first Cup start at Watkins Glen, and he finished a lowly 35th at Sonoma earlier in the summer. The outlook for his chances in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen is not good.
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