Watkins Glen poses big challenges for Chase contenders
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[August 05, 2016]
Jonathan Ingram, The Sports Xchange
For Sprint Cup drivers who are
contenders to make NASCAR's version of the postseason, there are
many ways the race can go right or wrong on Sunday at Watkins Glen.
The only safe prediction -- whether by team owners, crew chiefs,
drivers or journalists -- is that stuff happens at the 2.45-mile
road course with a majority of right hand corners instead of left
hand turns. Unusual stuff.
When it comes to the Chase standings, there are 10 drivers in the
running for the remaining five places currently available for
getting into the Chase on points. Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Chase
Elliott, Jamie McMurray and Kyle Larson are currently above the cut
line. Kasey Kahne, Trevor Bayne, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
and A.J. Allmendinger are within shouting distance in the points
Chris Buescher, the upset winner at the Pocono Raceway on Monday, is
six points out of the Top 30. If he can advance one position in the
points and stay in the Top 30, his surprise victory will put him
into the Chase and take away one spot for those who are vying to get
in on points.
What kind of road racer is Buescher? His first Xfinity Series
victory came at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2014.
For those who can't afford a bad day at the track when it comes to
making the Chase, here are the main ways results can be juggled
dramatically on the 22nd stop in the 26-race regular season:
1. Pit strategy -- When Tony Stewart won at the Sonoma Raceway in
June, an early pit stop and fortuitous caution put him into the
lead. From there he held on, sometimes precariously, for a victory
despite getting passed briefly due to worn tires by Denny Hamlin on
the last lap. It was an upset because Stewart was out of the running
until he was forced to pit early by ill handling. Teams willing to
gamble on getting a victory or high finish can choose to try their
luck at the Glen and come in early for tires and fuel on the last
round of stops, hoping for a quick caution and an outcome similar to
Stewart at Sonoma.
2. Fuel mileage -- This is an alternate route when it comes to pit
strategy. Fuel strategies can be dictated by cautions, which can
present the chance for a backmarker to advance to the front. But if
a fuel strategy falls short, it can lead to a plunge in the points
with either a slow final lap or an incomplete last lap.
Last year, Joey Logano led only one lap to win as he passed the
slowing Chevy of Kevin Harvick, which was out of fuel, in the final
corner. Kyle Busch also slipped by to take second. This may have
shaken up only the top three positions, but it's an example of how
risk taking on fuel strategy comes into play at Watkins Glen.
3. New race winner -- A driver in the running for a points position
such as Allmendinger can win the race and reduce the number of spots
available in the 16-driver field to those trying to make the Chase
on points. Allmendinger came into the Sprint Cup from the CART
series, where he regularly won on road and street circuits. He took
the victory at the Glen in 2014 and has been a contender on road
courses ever since.
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Are there any other potential candidates to win now that Down Under
road racer Marcos Ambrose has returned to his native Tasmania after
winning in 2011 and 2012? Boris Said, a road racer who has regularly
driven Sprint Cup events at the Glen, is entered by GO FAS Racing.
Where Front Row Motorsports and Buescher are affiliated with Roush
Fenway Racing, GO FAS is a long, long shot despite the prowess of
4. Mechanical failure -- Drivers shift more often at the Glen than
on ovals. This can put the gearboxes themselves at risk and valve
trains, which can be damaged due to missing a shift and over-revving
the engine. Since the vast majority of drivers finish on the lead
lap at the Glen, an early exit or lost lap due to a sour
transmission or engine can really hurt in the points.
Brad Keselowski's crash during a test at the New York track traced
to an improperly installed brake line was a reminder that car prep
is crucial as always. Since teams only race on road circuits twice a
year, mistakes in preparation, which are increasingly rare in the
Sprint Cup, can happen.
5. Crew chief strategy -- the wrong call or calls by a crew chief on
when to pit can leave a driver mired in traffic at the tail end of
the field. When Tony Eury, Jr. had to step down as the crew chief
for his cousin Dale Earnhardt, Jr., at Hendrick Motorsports in 2009,
the writing was on the wall after he badly botched the strategy at
6. Driver error -- With so much shifting and turns, plus the
precarious braking zone for the bus stop chicane on the back
straight, it's relatively easy for drivers to get off course. On
ovals, they merely get off line with slight errors. A few inches can
make a world of difference at the Glen. Once in the grass, it's easy
for a driver to bust his, well, damage the car enough to lose a lap.
That's the kiss of points death at the Glen.
7. The weather -- While it would be highly unlikely for two races in
a row to be halted by fog, which brought Buescher his victory at
Pocono, the Glen is alternately sunny, cloudy, clear, misty and
rainy during the late summer. A weather interruption could once
again play havoc in the final results like at Pocono.
Throw into this mix of possible problems the fact that expert road
racers Stewart and Jeff Gordon, subbing for the injured Earnhardt,
Jr., are in theory running their last race at the Glen. Stewart is a
lock for the Chase and Gordon as a super sub is ineligible due to
his distant points position. Neither driver has anything to lose by
gambling for a victory by racing aggressively. It's the same with
their crew chiefs when it comes to an aggressive pit strategy.
Whatever the weather, the forecast for Watkins Glen on Sunday is
mixed conditions as teams and drivers continue to jockey for a slot
in the Chase.
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