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Cheez-It 355k Preview: Road Racing 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 on the starting grid is nearly paramount. 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 a key theme 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 nine 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 nine years or nine races at Watkins Glen International.

Tony Stewart7.5195106145678120.4
Marcos Ambrose6.814512597425120.1
Kyle Busch8.117572188616113.3
Juan Pablo Montoya 13.61636082520110.5
Brad Keselowski6.5522939250102.8
Jimmie Johnson10.31882710637100.6
A.J. Allmendinger9.2948828294.7
Carl Edwards8.817815158894.6
Martin Truex Jr.12.41796051992.8
Kurt Busch18.4166476147591.8
Kevin Harvick15.3138103648088.3
Denny Hamlin19.515811041687.0
Clint Bowyer14.4991139884.7
Jamie McMurray19.910491239182.7
Jeff Gordon20.2158226043082.3
Ryan Newman16.81797940677.4
Matt Kenseth15.01181037377.3
Joey Logano18.6410017276.2
Greg Biffle21.01085035075.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.25.613873437173.4

In its Sprint Cup history, the Glen has been won from the front three rows 22 times in the 31 total races run to date. That factors out to a whopping 71-percent of the winners coming from the first three starting rows. The pole winner has collected nine of those 31 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, Kyle Busch, started fifth on the grid, so he was yet another winner starting in those first three rows. 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 10 races at the Glen, and as recently as the 2009 season. With Stewart suffering some performance issues in 2014, 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 Watkins Glen race fell into the clutches of Busch, but Keselowski was there at the end beating fenders with the leaders for the victory. Prior to that, Ambrose had won the 2011 and 2012 installments of this event. The road racing specialist from Down Under has mastered the New York road circuit and currently stands atop the heap as one of the top contenders to win this Sunday afternoon. These two drivers aren't the only contenders for the win. Joe Gibbs Racing ace Busch is a clear threat to visit victory lane at the Glen and successfully defend his victory of a year ago. 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 -
With two Sprint Cup Series victories and three Nationwide Series victories, Watkins Glen International has proved to be the Richard Petty Motorsports driver's best track. This comes as no surprise considering Ambrose spent several years racing on the road circuits of Australia and winning championships in the V-8 Supercar Series. In this event one-year ago, the RPM driver won the pole, led 51 laps, but crashed and finished 31st. Ambrose will be out to redeem himself this weekend. The driver of the No. 9 Ford is a must-start for the Cheez-It 355k Sunday afternoon.

Brad Keselowski -
The Penske Racing star is looking to return to the dominant driver we saw a few weeks ago at the Loudon short track. Keselowski is coming off a sub-par Pocono finish and looking to rebound this weekend. With four 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 three seasons and picked up runner-up finishes in all of them. Last season we saw the driver of the No. 2 Ford battling Kyle Busch in the final laps only to fall short and finish second. This time around Keselowski could get that first Watkins Glen victory that he's been narrowly missing.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing team has been dealing with a range of inconsistencies this season, but we felt Busch's Watkins Glen resume makes him more of the contender play variety this weekend. Busch won this race in 2008 and 2013, and he's a two-time pole-winner at the New York road circuit. In this event one year ago he qualified fifth, led 29 laps and won the Cheez-It 355k. 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.

Carl Edwards -
The Roush Fenway Racing star is our earlier road course victor, taking the big win at Sonoma Raceway earlier this summer. 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 5 at Watkins Glen International and may even challenge for the win. He boasts one pole position and four Top 5s in nine career starts at the New York road circuit, and he's never finished outside the Top 20 in those starts. Edwards finished a brilliant fourth in this race one year ago, so there's at least a decent chance the No. 99 team could sweep the road courses this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with 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 nine Top 10s on the season and he's ranked ninth in the standings coming into the Cheez-It 355k. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota qualified second and finished sixth in this race one year ago, and that was one of two Top 10s in the last two seasons for Bowyer at the Glen. In the road course race at Sonoma earlier this season, Bowyer forged a Top-10 finish, so a Top 10 Watkins Glen performance seems to be a lock considering the current level of performance of this driver and team.

Joey Logano -
Logano has a short but somewhat successful resume at the Glen. In his last three trips to the winding circuit, he's claimed a pair of Top-10 finishes. Great Top-5 runs at Indianapolis and Pocono have set this team in motion to make the Chase for the second-straight season. The No. 22 Ford team was strong earlier this season at Sonoma Raceway, but Logano didn't get the finish he deserved in the Toyota/Save Mart 350. The young Penske Racing star should ride another hot rod into Watkins Glen this weekend. In this event one year ago he finished a strong seventh, 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.

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. Despite his misfortune and 39th-place finish at Pocono Raceway this past weekend, he's still one of the more consistent drivers on these winding road circuits. 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 seven Top 10s in 12 career starts at the facility. The Hendrick Motorsports star is riding a three-race Watkins Glen Top-10 streak into Sunday's 355k event.

Martin Truex Jr. -
In what has been a turbulent season for the veteran driver, there have been bright spots along the way. Top 10s at Dover and Pocono in June, and more recently a Top 15 at the road course at Sonoma. Despite the struggles, Truex still proves 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 eight career starts at this facility have netted Top-10 finishes. Considering he won the road race at Sonoma last summer, we should see another great effort from this driver and team.

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

Kevin Harvick -
Coming off the strong runner-up finish at Pocono Raceway, Harvick sets his sights on the 11-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 six career Top-10 finishes in 13 starts which work out to a decent 46-percent rate. His latest efforts have netted sixth-, 15th- and 13th-place finishes. The move to SHR this season may be the single factor that pushes Harvick back to being a Top 5 contender at this facility. As we recall, he is a one-time winner at the Glen (2006) so the gift to dominate here clearly is present.

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing star is still finding his groove coming to Watkins Glen. Busch is a great road course driver as his Sonoma and Watkins Glen resumes will attest. While he only has one pole position and five Top 10s at the New York road course in 13 career starts, his success has come more recently at the facility. When we couple that with his recent Sonoma outings (one victory and three Top 5s in the last four races there) you have to take the No. 41 Chevrolet team very seriously this weekend. Busch finished a strong ninth in this event one year ago. He should be up to a similar task this Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne -
Considering that Kahne has never cracked the Top 10 in 10 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 2014 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 Top 10s the past two weeks at Indianapolis and Pocono. Not many have been faster than this driver and team in recent weeks. Kahne posted a career-best Watkins Glen finish of 13th two seasons ago, but we feel he'll easily surpass this mark in the Cheez-It 355k.

Jamie McMurray -
The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet has some undervalued road course skills. McMurray won the pole, led 9 laps and posted a brilliant fourth-place finish at Sonoma Raceway in June. That was his third-career pole position at that road course and second-career Top 5. His Watkins Glen numbers are pretty solid as well. McMurray has two Top 10s at the New York road course and he finished a solid 11th-place there in this event one year ago. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver is full of surprises and on these winding road circuits, he can be very surprising. Don't get caught off guard by excluding him from your fantasy lineup at the Glen.

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 10 career starts he's posted one Top-5 finish and six 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 19.1 this Sunday afternoon. Mears has finished 16th- and 12th- in his last two Glen starts, so the ceiling could be even higher.

A.J. Allmendinger -
If you have to go deep into your bench this weekend, or stretch those starts in weekly lineup games, 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-, eighth- and 10th-place in his five career starts at the winding road course. More recently, he led 35 laps at the road course in Sonoma earlier this summer before misfortune saddled him with a poor finish. 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.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

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. Normally, Stewart is near the top of our list each time we come to the 11-turn road course. However, things have begun to change for Stewart here in the last couple visits. Finishes of 27th- and 19th-place the last two years are very uncharacteristic, and it's a bad trend for the slumping driver. Stewart finished a sub-par 19th at the road course in Sonoma in June and he was practically invisible at Pocono this past weekend, finishing an uncharacteristic 36th.

Jeff Gordon -
After his Indianapolis victory and Pocono Top-10 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 12 starts at the track. Things have been quite difficult for the No. 24 Chevrolet team the last six seasons at this facility. While Gordon has been living a charmed life in 2014, there's no reason to press your luck at Watkins Glen. Trends are not good and show that Gordon is a high-risk driver for this race. There are much better options in the driver pool this weekend.

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, even though things have been looking up the last four races. 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 four trips to Watkins Glen International. When we look back at Sonoma in June we see a lackluster 26th-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 big victory 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 14 starts there. Earnhardt is having a great season, but the chances of a course correction at the challenging Glen are slim. His last seven trips to the Glen have netted only one Top-20 finish.
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