With five races to go before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, drivers continue to jockey for position. The top five in the Sprint Cup standings, Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton, are locks at this point to make the Chase. That leaves seven spots remaining for nine drivers with realistic playoff aspirations. Whoever makes up the field of 12 is chasing Busch, who will start out with a significant lead in the points based on his, to date, seven Sprint Cup victories in 2008.
This week's race at Watkins Glen International brings out the road course specialists to handle a track with right turns and without banking. Qualifying and track position are important.
Pit strategy at the course is very different from how it is at other tracks. Teams do not depend on cautions to dictate when they pit. Cars do not go a lap down when pitting under green, so a caution coming out while a team is in the pits can be an advantage. Pit boxes are on the right, further differentiating the track for pit crews.
Passes usually result from one car out-braking another car into the corner. Most passes take place in Turn 1, the inner loop or Turn 6. Unlike other Sprint Cup races, cars are set up to qualify and race in the rain, if necessary.
Location: Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Shape: Road course
Length: 2.45 miles
Banking: 0 degrees
Table: Do not bench
Leading the pack
Kurt Busch | No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge | Penske Racing
The frustrating 2008 campaign for Busch, the 2004 Sprint Cup champion, continued last week with a 38th-place effort at Pocono Raceway. He stands 18th in the points and is closer to dropping out of the top 20 in the standings than he is to getting back into the top 15. He will not make the Chase this year. Busch has little to be excited about this week at Watkins Glen International, where he has just one top-10, a 10th-place run in 2004. Last year he finished 11th after starting 13th. Busch has been much better at the other road course - Infineon Raceway - where he has three career top-fives. Busch's ongoing struggles, combined with his uninspiring Watkins Glen record, earn him an "avoid" recommendation for fantasy gamers.
Jamie McMurray | No. 26 Crown Royal Ford | Roush Fenway Racing
McMurray comes to Watkins Glen International on a mini-hot streak. He finished sixth at the Brickyard two weeks ago and a ninth last week at Pocono Raceway; it's the first time this season McMurray has put together back-to-back top-10 runs. McMurray has five top-10 finishes in 2008 and stands 19th in the point standings. In five career races at Watkins Glen, McMurray has a 17.0 average finish and one top-five, a third-place run in 2006. Last year, McMurray came home 34th after rolling off 18th. A quick analysis of McMurray's season shows that he has his best runs on the low-banked tracks; Watkins Glen actually has no banking. We look for McMurray to build on his 18th-place finish in the season's first road course race, the higher banked Infineon Raceway. A third consecutive top-10 is not out of the question.
Juan Pablo Montoya | No. 42 Big Red Slim Pack Dodge | Chip Ganassi Racing
Montoya's 40th-place finish at Pocono Raceway last week dropped him three spots to 25th in the Sprint Cup standings, his lowest point since the season's third race. In his short Sprint Cup career, Montoya has had most of his success on road courses. His only win came at Infineon Raceway last season, and he posted one of only two top-10s this season at Infineon, a sixth-place run in June. Montoya also won a Nationwide Series race on a road course in Mexico last year. Last year, at Watkins Glen, Montoya finished 39th after wrecking and falling out of the race. While it is tempting to translate Montoya's success at Infineon into a prediction of success at Watkins Glen, the tracks are different enough to warrant a wait and see approach. A top-10 is a fair bet this week but not a given.
Robby Gordon | No. 7 Jim Beam Dodge | Robby Gordon Racing
Following his 37th-place run at Pocono last week, Gordon sits at 30th in the point standings. Normally a non-factor, Gordon surfaces twice a year at Sprint Cup's two road course races. While Gordon has wins at both tracks, Watkins Glen is the place where he is a consistent threat. In 11 career races at each track, he has an 8.8 average finish at Watkins Glen and a 22.1 average finish at Infineon Raceway. He has four top fives in his last five races at Watkins Glen. Gordon's varied success at the two road courses on the Sprint Cup schedule is indicative of how some drivers show a definite preference of one track to the other. Gordon is one of a handful of favorites this week and is a cheap top-five threat for salary cap games.
Clint Bowyer | No. 07 DIRECTV Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
After his sixth-place run last week at Pocono Raceway, Bowyer remains at 12th in the point standings, the final spot that will qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup next month. He is only 11 points ahead of the 13th-place driver, however, so he can afford no mistakes. Fortunately, in his brief career, Bowyer has shown a penchant for success at road courses, such as Watkins Glen International. In five career road course races, he has a 10.8 average finish. While he has been better at Infineon Raceway, he has managed finishes of 14th and 16th in two attempts at Watkins Glen. We see Bowyer as a safe pick to finish somewhere inside the second 10 again this week.
Drivers to keep an eye on
Ryan Newman | No. 12 Kodak Dodge | Penske Racing
Newman finished 14th last week at Pocono Raceway. It was his 11th finish between sixth and 15th place this season. Such mediocre consistency is enough for Newman to find himself 15th in the point standings, 173 points out of the magical 12th spot. In other words, time is running out for Newman, who brings a decent road course resume into this week's race at Watkins Glen International, to make the Chase. In six races at Watkins Glen, Newman has a 14.7 average finish with one top-five and three top-10s. He finished 13th last year after rolling off 15th; he was eighth in 2006 after qualifying third. Newman finished seventh in this season's first road course race at Infineon Raceway. Everything points toward yet another finish outside the top five but inside the top 15.
Elliott Sadler | No. 19 Best Buy Dodge | Gillett Evernham Motorsports
Sadler's fourth-place run at the Brickyard two weeks ago raised expectations for last week's race at Pocono Raceway. However, Sadler failed to deliver, finishing 27th at the Long Pond, Pa. track. Sadler is 21st in the point standings; he was 23rd at the same point in 2007. Sadler seems to run better at road courses than the numbers indicate. In nine career races at Watkins Glen International, Sadler has a 20.6 average finish and only one top-10, a seventh-place run in 2006. Last year, Sadler came home 17th after rolling off 23rd. In June, Sadler finished 19th at Infineon Raceway, his preferred road course venue, where he better average finish but five places than at Watkins Glen. Still, Sadler may be a good fit for some in many fantasy formats. A finish in the second quarter of the field is the reasonable expectation.
Jeff Burton | No. 31 AT&T Mobility Chevrolet | Richard Childress Racing
Burton's 21st-place run last week at Pocono Raceway dropped him two spots to fifth in the point standings. With only one top-10 in his last seven races, Burton has lost almost all the momentum that had him atop the standings through Week 9 of the season. While Burton is still a shoo-in for the Chase, a couple top-fives are a must or he will once again find himself a Chase field-filler once the playoffs begin. A top-five is unlikely this week at Watkins Glen, however. In 14 career races, Burton has two top-fives, three top-10s and a 21.3 average finish. Last year, he rolled off third but did not finish the race and posted a 40th-place finish. He was 11th in 2006 after starting 16th. A finish in the teens is where fantasy owners should expect to see Burton this week.
Brian Vickers | No. 83 Red Bull Toyota | Red Bull Racing
Vickers was a favorite pre-race sleeper last week at Pocono Raceway. He never materialized as a contender, however, ultimately finishing 28th, the final car on the lead lap. Still, this has been a banner season for Vickers, who was struggling to qualify for races at this point last season. He is 16th in the points, 22 places above where he finished 2007. In four career races at Watkins Glen, Vickers has a 23.9 average finish with one top-10, an eighth in 2005. Vickers was 16th in this race in 2006 and 41st last year. Vickers posted a 14th-place run at Infineon Raceway in June. We expect a similar run in the top 20 this week.
Patrick Carpentier | No. 10 Charter Communications Dodge | Gillett Evernham Motorsports
Carpentier has participated in 17 of the 21 Cup races this year. He has no top-10s and stands 37th in the point standings. His season highlight came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in June. Carpentier won the pole and led laps before coming home in 31st. While Carpentier's pedigree as a road course racer has not translated into much success on the Sprint Cup Circuit, he has posted some notable performances on road courses in the Nationwide Series, including a second-place run last week in Montreal. In his only Cup race at Watkins Glen, Carpentier finished 22nd after starting 40th. At Infineon Raceway in June, Carpentier was 23rd after starting 37th. It is worth paying attention to Carpentier's qualifying run. If he starts in the top half of the field, a top-10 run is conceivable.