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Cheez-It 355k 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 Cheez-It 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 eight 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 eight years or eight races at Watkins Glen International.

Tony Stewart7.5195106145678120.4
Marcos Ambrose2.01349546342120.1
Juan Pablo Montoya 15.01395981431110.5
Kyle Busch9.015960159527110.2
Jimmie Johnson10.61642710573102.0
Brad Keselowski8.0392539180101.7
Carl Edwards9.416215150694.0
A.J. Allmendinger9.0806822292.4
Kurt Busch19.6147476139590.7
Denny Hamlin19.615111041089.6
Martin Truex Jr.13.71624043189.2
Kevin Harvick15.612762844288.8
Jeff Gordon18.3158226043088.6
Clint Bowyer15.6901131381.2
Jamie McMurray21.09381131681.1
Ryan Newman17.11677936977.4
Matt Kenseth14.01090030176.6
Greg Biffle21.61015033875.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.25.012373433473.6
Jeff Burton24.6782031773.3

In its Sprint Cup history, the Glen has been won from the front two rows 18 times in the 30 total races run to date. That factors out to 60 percent of the winners coming from the first two starting rows. The pole winner has collected nine of those 30 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, Marcos Ambrose, started fifth on the grid, so he was just outside of the first two rows. However, that information doesn't diminish this point. As far as setting your weekly fantasy lineups this Sunday, you can take a long look at pole-qualifying on Friday and it will be a good indicator of what to expect in this 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 nine races at the Glen, and as recently as the 2009 season. With Stewart sidelined for the near future with the broken leg, we have to look to other drivers to step up and lead the charge. The biggest threats to sweep into victory lane this Sunday are likely Penske Racing star Brad Keselowski and Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marcos Ambrose. The last two Watkins Glen races have fallen into the clutches of Ambrose. The road racing specialist from Down Under has mastered the New York road circuit and currently stands atop the heap as the defending event champion. These two drivers aren't the only contenders for the win. Road racing specialist Juan Pablo Montoya, who won this race three years ago and Joe Gibbs Racing ace Kyle Busch 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 picked up his second straight victory at the Glen in one of the most dramatic finishes in track history. He beat and banged with Brad Keselowski to make the race-winning pass on the white flag lap to capture the win. 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 two victories, five Top-5 finishes and 46 laps led in the last five races at the New York road course. The driver of the No. 9 Ford is a must-start for the Cheez-It 355k on Sunday.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been dealing with a range of inconsistencies this season, but we felt 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 qualified on the outside pole and dominated by leading 43 laps before ultimately finishing seventh. This is a race track for aggressive drivers, and that's exactly what Busch is without a doubt. 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.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is looking to reestablish his dominance after a campaign that has largely fallen short of expectations. Keselowski is coming off the solid Pocono Top-10 finish and looking for more. With three 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 returned here to this event each of the last two seasons and picked up runner-up finishes in both. Last season we saw the driver of the No. 2 Ford battling door-to-door with Marcos Ambrose on the final lap only to fall short and finish second. This time around could be a shot at redemption.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson and the No. 48 team are looking to stay on their current hot streak. Despite his misfortune and 13th-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 six Top 10s in 11 career starts at the facility. The five-time champion posted Watkins Glen best third-place finish in this race one year ago. Johnson should have no trouble pushing that mark again this Sunday afternoon.

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

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing veteran is coming to New York looking to keep his good season rolling. Bowyer has 11 Top 10s on the season and he's ranked second in the standings coming into the Cheez-It 355k. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota qualified eighth and finished fourth in this race one year ago, and that's just part of a strong road course resume. In the road course race at Sonoma earlier this season, Bowyer forged a Top-5 finis, so a Top-10 finish seems to be a lock considering the current level of performance of this driver and team.

Kurt Busch -
The Furniture Row Racing star is on fire right now. Busch is a great road course driver as his Sonoma and Watkins Glen resumes will attest. While he only has one pole position and four Top 10s at the New York road course in 12 career starts, his success has come more recently at the facility. When we couple that with his recent Sonoma outings (one victory and three consecutive Top 5s in the last three races there) you have to take the No. 78 Chevrolet team very seriously this weekend. Busch piloted this same team to 15 laps led and a brilliant fourth-place finish at the California road course earlier this summer. He should be up to a similar task this Sunday afternoon.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is having a good season, but has been battling some performance issues of late. Edwards enters the Cheez-It 355k third in the standings, but with only one Top 10 in the last five races. 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 Ford Fusion into the Top 10 at Watkins Glen International. He boasts one pole position and five Top 10s in eight career starts at the New York road circuit, and he's never finished outside the Top 20 in those starts. Edwards finished a brilliant third at the Sonoma road course earlier this summer, so momentum is on his side.

Juan Pablo Montoya -
When we visit Watkins Glen, 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, one pole position and four Top-10 finishes in six career starts. Montoya's team showed some signs of life with an impressive ninth-place finish at Indianapolis two weeks ago. The No. 42 team seems to show up strong each time we visit Watkins Glen International. This time around should be much the same.

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

Jeff Gordon -
After his Indy Top 10 and Pocono runner-up finish, 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 11 starts at the track. This is no reason to discount the No. 24 Chevrolet team on Sunday. He still checks in at near 50 percent for a Top-10 rate at the track. Gordon seems to be running downhill with a purpose towards the Chase for the Cup. He should ride the momentum of the Pocono performance to a Top-10 finish at Watkins Glen.

Kasey Kahne -
Considering that Kahne has never cracked the Top 10 in nine starts at the winding New York road course, this would seem like a pretty bold prediction putting him in the sleepers list this week. However, the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has been rewriting his record books to a degree in the 2013 season. Kahne posted a great sixth-place finish at the Sonoma road course earlier this year, and he's riding the huge wave of momentum from his Pocono victory this past weekend. No body has been faster than this driver and team in recent weeks, other than perhaps his teammate Jimmie Johnson. Kahne posted a career-best Watkins Glen finish of 13th last season, but we feel he'll easily surpass this mark in the Cheez-It 355k.

Joey Logano -
Logano is riding a two-race Top-10 streak into Watkins Glen International this week. Great runs at Indianapolis and Pocono have set this team in motion to make the Chase. The No. 22 Ford team was strong earlier this season at Sonoma Raceway when Logano led 10 laps and finished a respectable 11th in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The young Penske Racing star should ride another hotrod into Watkins Glen this weekend. In this event two years ago he finished a stellar fifth, and that demonstrates his nose for aggressive racing. All indicators point to another Top 10 effort in Sunday's race at the 11-turn road course.

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 15s 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. Four of his seven career starts at this facility have netted Top-10 finishes. Considering he won the road race at Sonoma earlier this summer, we should see another great effort from this driver and team.

Brian Vickers -
Vickers should be a selection in everyone's weekly lineup leagues this week. This will be his first start in the No. 55 Toyota since the big victory at Loudon a few weeks ago. Road courses have been very favorable for him during his Sprint Cup career and certainly more so the past couple seasons. In looking back just a few short weeks ago to Sonoma, Vickers piloted the No. 55 Toyota to three laps led and a respectable 13th-place finish in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. Nothing says "Certain Top 15" like Vickers this Sunday afternoon.

A.J. Allmendinger -
If you have to go deep into your bench this weekend, or stretch those starts in the Yahoo Fantasy Racing game, you might consider Allmendinger and the JTG Daugherty Racing team this week. Allmendinger's Watkins Glen stats are pretty stellar, he has finishes of 11th-, 14th-, fourth- and eighth-place in his last four starts at the winding road course. More recently, he won a dominating performance from the pole position in the Nationwide Series race at Road America this summer. 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.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

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. The late breaking news this week that Stewart has broken his leg in a sprint car accident at South Iowa Speedway, has taken him out of action at the Glen. Likely, the injury will sideline the three-time champion for several weeks. Normally we give a hearty recommendation to the Stewart Haas Racing star, but this weekend put Stewart on the bench and keep him there until the leg heals.

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 major struggles this season, 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 few seasons with DNF's in each of his last three trips to Watkins Glen International. When we look back at Sonoma in June we see a lackluster 23rd-place finish that gives us negative vibes about his road course performance in the Cheez-It 355k.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
On the heels of his Top-5 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 10s in 13 starts there. Earnhardt is having a good season, but the only place he's looked average was earlier this summer at the road course in California. His last six trips to the Glen have netted only one Top-20 finish.

Matt Kenseth -
The veteran Joe Gibbs Racing driver has fallen on some hard times of late. What was a season of dominance early in 2013 has turned to struggles of late. Kenseth has only four Top-10 finishes in his last 10 races and he's coming off the spin and 22nd-place finish at Pocono this past weekend. He'll be the first to admit that his road racing skills are the best. Kenseth always seems to just "survive" this winding road course events. His 19th-place finish at Sonoma earlier this summer is a prime example of that. From a fantasy racing standpoint put the No. 20 Toyota on the bench this week and redeploy Kenseth on a cookie cutter oval like Michigan in two weeks.