Friday, August 10, 2012
Notes from the NASCAR Nation: Make a Left, Take the Next Right it's Road Course Time
by Dave Grayson
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to New York state to take on the annual challenge that comes with road course racing at the massive Watkins Glen International Raceway. Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 is expected to be a daunting challenge as most road course racing often is. It won't take very long to determine which drivers has road course experience and which drivers needs some.
THE STORY BREAKDOWN
The 2012 racing season is now in its final five races before the official line up for this year's Chase for the Championship is determined. Right now the big story focus is on the wild card berths, positions 11 and 12 of the Chase line up. That's because it's loaded with racing drama featuring racing names that many of us thought would make the Chase via the traditional top ten in points method.
Going into Sunday's race at Watkins Glen, Kasey Kahne is in control of the first wild card berth based on his two wins. After shaking off an unexpected tough start to the 2012 season, Kahne and company not only has scored their two trips to victory lane but have also managed to work their way to 11th in the current championship points standings. It's not out of the realm of possibility that Kahne could work his way into the coveted top ten and use his two victories as bonus points that could elevate his Chase position even higher.
When it comes to the second wild card berth story line, the focus lies in the fact that Jeff Gordon, based on last weekend's victory at Pocono, currently controls that position. It's very possible that Gordon could be in the process of launching the comeback story of the year. However, to make that happen, Gordon is going to need at least one more win, between now and the September 8th Chase cut off date, and a third win would likely seal the deal. The really good news for Gordon's championship hopes lies in the fact that he have some very good driver stats at the next five venues on the Sprint Cup schedule.
Still very much involved in the wild card picture are drivers Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Joey Logano. This trio of drivers have one win each in 2012. A second win from any of the three of them, between now and September 8th, could make the wild card picture extremely interesting.
The most direct route to the 2012 Chase line up is, of course, finishing in the top ten of the points. The bottom half of the top ten, going into Sunday's race, is rather tight and Watkins Glen could create a shake up among this group. There are only 11 points separating drivers Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Clint Bower who are seventh through tenth in the current standings.
It's likely that you will also hear considerable commentary about inclement weather and how to handle it. Expect the pre race show to address the lightning strikes, during last weekend's race at Pocono, that tragically claimed a life and left nine injured. You can also expect to hear a lot of back and forth regarding how this issue should be handled in the future.
Weather will definitely be an issue during the Watkins Glen weekend. The area forecast, from the National Weather Service, calls for a 70 percent chance of thunder showers in the area, with gusty winds, through Friday night. There's also a 30 percent chance of showers on Saturday and Sunday. In the event of rain, the Watkins Glen Raceway has a fleet of eight jet dryers that can dry the massive road course in approximately two hours.
THE LAS VEGAS BREAKDOWN
To determine which driver is going to make those left and right turns all the way to victory lane, we again turn to the number crunching professionals at the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE).
To no real surprise, the WSE is telling us it's "Aussie time." They have Marcus Ambrose at the top of the Watkins Glen ranking at 4 to 1 odds. That's because Ambrose is a multi time road racing champion in his native Australia. It's also because he has rock solid stats at the Glen including a previous win, from this time last year, along with four top five finishes, four top ten finishes and a stunning average finish ratio, (AFR), of 2.2. He's is, without question, a rock solid, and relatively safe, wager consideration.
The WSE has Tony Stewart ranked at 6 to 1. Here's another rock solid wager consideration. Stewart has a series high five wins at Watkins Glen along with seven top fives, ten top tens and a solid AFR of 7.1. He's sixth in the championship points with three wins. That makes him Chase safe.
At seven to 1 odds you will find Hendrick Motorsports team mates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The aforementioned Gordon currently has a shot at the second wild card berth for the Chase but needs a second win to seal the deal. His personal stats at Watkins Glen indicates this might be the place to get the job done. He has four wins there along with six top fives and nine top tens along with a 14.5 AFR. He also has nine NASCAR road course wins.
Johnson is still seeking a win at the Glen. He has three top fives, five top tens and a 14.2 AFR. He's likely rated this high by the WSE because this team appears to be in championship mode at this point in the season. He also has three wins this year, and is fourth in the points, and that makes him Chase safe.
Kyle Busch is ranked at 8 to 1. He's one of the wild card contenders, with a previous win, but needs a second win to further advance his Chase hopes. He has good numbers at the Glen that includes a win, three top fives, six top tens and a strong 9.3 AFR.
Juan Pablo Montoya comes in at 10 to 1. This rating is likely based on his road racing skills from his Indy car and Formula One days. He does, however, have some solid NASCAR numbers from Watkins Glen that includes a win, two top fives, four top tens and a 11.4 AFR.
Turning to the WSE's middle tier, the tandem of Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are rated at 15 to 1. Keselowski, seventh in the points with three wins, is still seeking his first road course win in NASCAR racing. He does have a top five, a top ten with an 11.0 AFR.
The fact that Harvick is still seeking his first win of 2012 remains a mystery. He's ninth in the points but only two points ahead of tenth. It's go time for this driver. At Watkins Glen he's a previous winner with a pair of top fives, six top tens and a 12.9 AFR.
Martin Truex Jr is ranked at 18 to 1. Despite still seeking his first win of the season, his finish consistency has him fifth in the points. He's also looking for his first Glen win. He does have a pair of top fives there and a 14.2 AFR.
Clint Bowyer is ranked at 19 to 1. He won the road course event at Sonoma last June but that doesn't necessarily translate into a potential win at Watkins Glen. He only has one top ten there with a 17.5 AFR.
At 20 to 1 is the duo of Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. Edwards is seeking his first win at Watkins Glen but does have three top fives, five top tens and a healthy 8.7 AFR. Busch is a previous race winner at the Glen with four top fives but the AFR, 19.8, is on the high side.
Denny Hamlin comes in at 22 to 1 with the WSE. He's eighth in the points and only four markers ahead of tenth so he will have to be a little careful this Sunday. He's still looking for his first win at Watkins Glen.
Kasey Kahne currently commands the first wild card berth for the Chase and will be looking for a third win to seal the deal. But it may not be at Watkins Glen this Sunday where Kahne is still seeking his first ever top ten finish.
Turning to the WSE's lower tier for the Watkins Glen race, you will note that there are a few names that are high profile Chase contenders in this group. That's because their road racing skills could lose a little work. This list includes Joey Logano, a wild card contender, at 28 to 1. Greg Biffle, third in the championship standings, comes in at 35 to 1. Jamie McMurray is rated at 40 to 1. Ryan Newman, another wild card hopeful, is rated at 50 to 1 and shares that rating with Matt Kenseth who is second in the points, only five markers away from reclaiming the lead,
If you do not see the name of your favorite driver here, that means the WSE has them listed under "all others" at 8 to 1 odds.
(A brief pause here while members of the Junior Nation screams: "HEY, WHERE'S OUR GUY?????")
Dale Earnhardt Jr has a pair of top five finishes and a sky high 22.2 AFR at the Glen. The series' points leader will be the first to tell you that road racing is not his thing. His best bet on Sunday is to points race and try to find a way to keep Kenseth and Biffle behind him. That may not be that hard to do because Kenseth and Biffle's road racing skills aren't much better.
Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these posted numbers should be viewed for entertainment and informational purposes only. They neither encourage or condone the placing of wagers on their races.
But if you're going to do it anyway, then it makes all of the sense in the world to consider the sage advice from the number crunching professionals at the World Sports Exchange.
Personal opinion: the obvious choice is Marcus Ambrose for obvious reasons. The same theory certainly applies to Tony Stewart. However, gut feeling is telling me it's going to be Jeff Gordon in the winner's circle Sunday. He's very good at road racing and he's part of a very small group of drivers who has everything to gain and everything to lose in terms of making the Chase.
THE RACE BREAKDOWN
The Finger Lakes 355 is 90 laps, 220.5 miles and 355 kilometers around the Watkins Glen International Raceway's massive 2.45 mile road course.
The race has 43 entries vying for 43 starting berths. That means all entries will get to race on Sunday and the go or go home list, aka knock out qualifying, will not apply here.
Marcus Ambrose is the defending race champion. The first NASCAR Sprint Cup at Watkins Glen was held in 1957 and was won by Buck Baker. Since that time the raceway has hosted 29 Cup events that has sent 18 different winners to victory lane. Tony Stewart leads the raceway's win category with five. Hendrick Motorsports leads the team wins with six while Chevrolet leads the manufacturer's standings with 13 wins.
Track position is always important in any NASCAR Sprint Cup event and this is especially true of a road course. The track qualifying record, 126.421 MPH, was set by Kyle Busch in August of last year. Nine of the 29 Cup events have been won from the pole position. The last one to win from the pole at Watkins Glen was Kyle Busch back in 2008. 19 of 29 races have been won from a starting position within the top five while 21 of 29 have been won from a top ten starting berth.
The Watkins Glen International Raceway's 2.45 mile road course was opened in 1956 and features 11 left and right hand turns. The banking around the track ranges from six to ten degrees. The 11 turns are connected by two lengthy straightaways. The front stretch measures 2,141 feet while the backstretch measures 1,839 feet.
The Finger Lakes 355 will be broadcast live by the ESPN Network beginning at 12 pm eastern time. The race re air will be on Wednesday, August 15th, at 12 pm eastern time.