It's go time for A.J. Allmendinger and Marcos Ambrose.
If either driver wants to make the Chase, they need to get to victory lane at Watkins Glen on Sunday. With four other races to go before the Chase, it may seem like a rash statement. It's not.
While each driver has had good runs at times on oval tracks, neither is a threat to win every week. And neither will likely be a threat to win barring some crazy fuel mileage or other circumstances over the next four weeks. With the road racing background of each driver, their time to win is now.
During Friday's first practice, Allmendinger had the fourth-fastest lap. Ambrose was fifth.
"The first thing I thought about was, 'I hope I win before Watkins Glen so I can take some pressure off it,' " Ambrose told USA Today on Wednesday. "This week is building up to be one of those weeks where the expectations are high."
And deservedly so. Ambrose won at Watkins Glen in 2011 and 2012. Last year he had a good car too, but had something go wrong and was involved in a big crash in the esses.
The winner of the 2013 race? Kyle Busch. He said he didn't view Watkins Glen as any different from other races leading to the Chase even if it may be the best shot for drivers like Allmendinger and Ambrose to get in.
"Yeah, I don't think it's any different than any other week, Busch said Friday. "I don't think that you go to Bristol and have a guy that needs a win there, if they're not going to do anything there versus here. So, I just think that you've got to be conscious of all of that. You've got to know who you're racing and what they're racing for and just keep all of that in the back of your mind and do what you can in order to try to win the race for yourself and your team. But, past that obviously you're going to know that some people might do some desperate things."
Busch would have experience in defending the lead against a Chase-needy driver too. While en route to the win last season, Busch had to fend off Brad Keselowski, a driver who he's had a tumultuous on-track relationship with. While the Chase circumstances were different last year, a win would have boosted Keselowski's Chase chances immensely. On the final lap he chose not to use his front bumper to move Busch out of the way. (In 2012, Keselowski and Busch made contact during a wild and oil-slicked final lap.)
Of course, Keselowski's precedent isn't guaranteed to hold. We could see a driver move another out of the way for the win, especially if there's a late race restart. Or, we may not. After a relatively uneventful finish to June's race at Sonoma, there won't be many people disappointed with a frantic finish.
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