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Finger Lakes Preview: Bruising Battle at the Glen

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.

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 Finger Lakes 355k 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. 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 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 end of the day 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 have a history of racing well at this fast, rolling facility. We'll take a look at the last seven races at Watkins Glen and examine these numbers closely when forming our prognostications for the Finger Lakes 355k at the Glen. The following table has the loop stats from the last seven years or seven races at Watkins Glen International.

Tony Stewart5.9179105145613124.8
Marcos Ambrose2.31107938265118.0
Juan Pablo Montoya 11.41385080401112.6
Kyle Busch9.314541116437106.8
Jimmie Johnson11.71512110504100.7
Kurt Busch18.0142476139294.7
Denny Hamlin17.214111038893.5
Carl Edwards8.713714042893.5
A.J. Allmendinger9.0806822292.4
Jeff Gordon17.9143196038490.1
Kevin Harvick15.711662840289.2
Brad Keselowski11.0321229288.1
Martin Truex Jr.14.31434035387.1
Jamie McMurray18.48781129282.7
Robby Gordon16.610111221779.1
Jeff Burton23.9782031777.1
Clint Bowyer17.5730122577.1
Ryan Newman18.01567932077.1
Matt Kenseth14.9940024175.5
Joey Logano18.022008674.6

In its Sprint Cup history, the Glen has been won from the front two rows 18 times in the 29 total races run to date. That factors out to 62 percent of the winners coming from the first two starting rows. The pole winner has collected nine of those 29 wins. In fact, no winner of this race has started worse than 18th, so qualifying well is extremely important at this winding road course. 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 eight 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 Kyle Busch and Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose. These two drivers aren't the only contenders for the win. Road Racing specialists Juan Pablo Montoya, who won this race two years ago and rising Penske Racing star Brad Keselowski 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

Marcos Ambrose -
In this event one year ago Ambrose broke into the win column for the first time in his Sprint Cup Series career. He led 21 laps and fended off Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch to win the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. Watkins Glen International has proved to be the Richard Petty Motorsports driver's best track, which comes as little surprise considering he spent several years racing on the road circuits of Australia. Ambrose has led 38 laps total and never finished outside the Top 3 in his four career starts at the winding New York road course. The driver of the No. 47 Toyota is a must-start for the Finger Lakes 355k on Sunday.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been dealing with a range of inconsistencies this season, but Busch's Glen resume makes him more of the contender play variety this weekend. Busch won this race in 2008 and he's a two-time pole-winner at the New York road circuit. In this event one year ago he won the pole and dominated by leading 49 laps before ultimately finishing third. This is a race track for aggressive drivers, and that's exactly what Busch is for certain. 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.

Tony Stewart -
Smoke has dominated at Watkins Glen much of the last decade. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet stacked up five victories at the Glen from 2002 to 2009. If there is a sleeper in the field who can win this weekend, it is Stewart. His last two trips to the winding road circuit have been less than impressive, but if the team gives him anything remotely fast, he can win. Despite Stewart's ups-and-downs this season, you can't afford to not consider him in your fantasy racing lineups this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star has been the hottest thing going in the Sprint Cup Series the last six races. Keselowski has 101 laps led (second only to Jimmie Johnson), one victory and five Top 10s in the last six events. With three wins on the season now after his big Kentucky victory, the No. 2 team has to be taken very seriously. Keselowski has only two career starts in a Cup car at the Glen, but the learning curve has been steep. After a 20th-place finish in his debut in 2010, he returned here to this event one year ago and challenged for the win before finishing second in the Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen. There's little doubt that Keselowski will be in the mix for the win again.

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

Jeff Gordon -
After his Indy Top 5 and Pocono win, Gordon is peaking at the right time. The four-time Watkins Glen winner 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 10 starts at the track. This is no reason to discount the No. 24 Chevrolet team on Sunday. Gordon seems to be running downhill with a purpose towards the Chase for the Cup. He should ride the momentum of the Pocono win to a Top 10 at Watkins Glen.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran is coming to New York looking to keep his good season rolling. Bowyer has Top 10s in two of his last three starts and he's racing well coming into the Finger Lakes 355k. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota led 71 laps and won in dominating style at the Sonoma road course earlier this summer. We feel strongly that crew chief Brian Pattie will give him another strong Toyota Camry this Sunday at Watkins Glen International. Bowyer has finishes of ninth-, 32nd- and 11th-place in his last three trips to the Finger Lakes region of New York. So a Top-10 finish seems to be a lock considering the current level of performance of this driver and team.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson and the No. 48 team are looking to stay on their current hot streak. Despite his misfortune and 14th-place finish at Pocono Raceway this past weekend, he's still been one of the hottest drivers in the series the last month. The five-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 five Top 10s in 10 career starts at the facility. Johnson shouldn't have much trouble positing a finish similar to his fifth-place effort at the Sonoma road course earlier this season.

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 nearly flawless with one victory and four Top-10 finishes in five career starts. Montoya's team showed some signs of life with a pole position and seven laps led at Pocono this past weekend. The No. 42 team seems to be coming to life at just the right time for the Columbian driver.

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

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is having a very humbling season in the No. 99 Ford. He enters this event winless on the season, ranked 12th in the standings, and struggling to get into the Chase for the Cup in a few weeks. 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 team's Ford Fusion into the Top 10 at Watkins Glen International. He boasts one pole position and five Top 10s in seven career starts at the New York road circuit, and he's never finished outside the Top 20 in those starts. Edwards is fresh off a seventh-place finish at Pocono entering this event, so momentum is on his side.

Joey Logano -
Logano was denied a Top-5 finish at Pocono this past weekend due to a late-race accident and the event being cut short due to rain. The No. 20 Toyota was fast none-the-less. The young Joe Gibbs Racing star should ride another hotrod into Watkins Glen this weekend. In this event one year ago he finished a stellar fifth, and that demonstrates his nose for aggressive racing. To further bolster his road racing resume, Logano finished 10th at the winding circuit in Sonoma earlier this summer. So all indicators point to another Top 10 effort in Sunday's Finger Lakes 355k.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Just when it looked like a slump was imminent from both a fantasy and reality perspective for Truex Jr. and his No. 56 team, he's put together a nice run in the last two races. With Top 10s at both Indianapolis and Pocono the MWR driver has squashed any speculation of falling into a rut. Truex is again worthy of weekly fantasy racing lineup consideration. He visits a Watkins Glen road course this Sunday that has yielded some good finishes over his Sprint Cup career. Three of his six career starts at this facility have netted Top-10 finishes. Considering he qualified ninth and finished fourth in this event one year ago, we should see another great effort from this driver and team.

Kurt Busch -
The Phoenix Racing star is battling through an incredibly tough season, but there is good reason for hope this weekend at the Glen. The driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet has only one Top-5 finish all season, and that was his race-contending effort at Infineon Raceway in June. Busch mixed it up with the leaders and finished a brilliant third in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at the California road course. The Phoenix Racing team should give him another strong car this weekend at Watkins Glen. This is a facility where Busch has visited the Top 10 in three of his last four starts.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers should be a selection in everyone's weekly lineup leagues this week. Road courses have been very favorable for him during his Sprint Cup career and certainly more so this season. In looking back just a few short weeks ago to Sonoma, Vickers piloted the No. 55 Toyota to a brilliant 4th-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. That was no fluke, as he also sports a respectable average finish of 15.6 in his last three starts at the Glen. Nothing says “Certain Top 15” like Vickers this Sunday afternoon.

Casey Mears -
If you have to go deep into your bench this weekend, or stretch those starts in the Yahoo! Fantasy Racing game, you might consider Mears and the Germain Racing team this week. While Mears' Watkins Glen stats aren't stellar, he has finishes of 15th-, 19th-, 15th- and 20th-place in his last four starts at the winding road course. More recently, the driver of the No. 13 Toyota finished a very surprising 15th in the Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway. Mears can wheel a car around a road course, so let him prove it to you this weekend.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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 some struggles recently, including his crash and DNF at Pocono this past week. 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 couple seasons with DNF's in each of his last two trips to Watkins Glen International. When we look back at Sonoma in June we see a DNF and 35th-place finish that gives us negative vibes about his road course performance in the Finger Lakes 355k.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
On the heels of his transmission problem and DNF 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 10s in 12 starts there. Earnhardt is having a near-flawless season, but the only place he's looked average was earlier this summer at the road course in California. He finished 23rd that day in June, and a similar result is likely in store at the Glen.

Regan Smith -
Considering that the Furniture Row Racing team is just getting some momentum and Smith is posting some good finishes, it's difficult to bench them this week but we must. Smith has never been a driver for the road circuits to this point in his career. Four career starts at Sonoma have netted him a 29.0 average finish and three career starts at Watkins Glen have netted him a 31.3 average finish. Smith is very talented on the NASCAR ovals, but he struggles tremendously when the Sprint Cup Series rolls into the road course events.

Greg Biffle -
Veteran Roush driver Biffle is having a very good season. He enters the weekend ranked third in the Chase Standings and in the hunt for this season's championship. However, we have to dial down our expectations for this weekend's Finger Lakes 355k. Biffle has only two Top 10s in nine career starts at the New York road course and that averages out to a sub-par 25.8 average finish. The driver of the No. 16 Ford had his hands full here one year ago when he struggled and finished a disappointing 31st. It's better to bench Biffle this week and redeploy him at Michigan next weekend.