Left, right, left, right, left: It's time for the second trip to the twisty tracks and drivers have to dust off their road racing skills for 90 laps around 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International. Fortunately, those skills are not buried under a very thick layer. Even though NASCAR visits this track type only twice per year, this is still a part of the season that rewards momentum.
This portion of the schedule is notable because drivers get a chance to build on their success on a given track or track type. Beginning with the second week of June and extending into the second week of the Chase, three of NASCAR's tracks host a pair of races that are very close to one another on the schedule. Pocono's two events are separated by only six races. Michigan's first and second events are separated by seven race weekends and New Hampshire by eight. The collective road courses are the closest on the schedule with only five oval-track races in between them and three of those events were held on minimally-banked courses.
Most of the drivers who ran well at Sonoma in late June are still energized by their success and will have little difficulty adapting to the different course layout. Those who struggled will battle personal demons and wonder if they have the right stuff to go fast when they are required to turn right in addition to the usual left-hand corners that make up 94 percent of their schedule.
A horse of a different color
Sonoma's turns are tighter, so that track is generally considered more technical. Watkins Glen is much faster and less technical. In fact, last year's pole speed on the New York track was 33 mph faster than in California and that makes a huge difference to road course racers. Stock car drivers are a different breed, however, and at NASCAR's elite level, they are accustomed to tackling short tracks and unrestricted, intermediate speedways in back-to-back weekends.
Both races are almost identical in length. Sonoma's event measures 219 miles with 110 laps on a slightly shorter course. Watkins Glen lasts 220 miles and both are mercifully short contests given the difficulty that some of the drivers in the middle and back of the field have in staying on course.
Judging by their records, the majority of the drivers in the field would be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two road courses. But, there are a few who have distinctly dissimilar experiences on these tracks and to succeed this week, fantasy owners need to know who they are.
The cost of a mistake at Watkins Glen can be much higher than Sonoma. In addition to faster speeds, the distance from fence to fence is narrower in New York and there are some bottlenecks along the course that can be hazardous. Watkins Glen is a much more of a wild card than Sonoma, so the second criterion players will want to consider is the average running position. This gets skewed somewhat by the unique strategies played out during the afternoon, but the cream nearly always rises to the top to make this one of the most useful tools of the weekend.
It is a testament to his strength that most view Marcos Ambrose's eighth-place finish at Sonoma this June as a huge disappointment. Except for an accident in the 2008 race, Ambrose had never finished worse than sixth on a road course in a Cup car -- and even that single sixth-place finish required explanation because he had been leading the 2010 race at Sonoma until he stalled his car under caution. This June, however, his eighth-place finish was well-earned. He posted only the ninth-best average running position and was simply never in contention for the victory, but that shouldn't damper players' enthusiasm for him this week. Ambrose has been close to perfect in Watkins Glen and has never finished worse than third. His first attempt came in 2008 when he climbed into a car that started last in the field and he clawed his way to third. If he could make up that many positions during a short 220-mile race, this week should not be a challenge in light of where he will certainly start.
Juan Montoya was also a disappointment at Sonoma this past June, but fantasy owners should ignore that race. The No. 42 began developing electrical gremlins before the quarter-distance and matters went from bad to worse in the closing laps. He finished well off the pace with mechanical problems and lost a lot of points. Since he was one of the most popular drivers in the field that week, the impact was less than it might have been and his struggles could play into astute players' hands if that keeps him off the competition's roster. Montoya won the 2010 race at Watkins Glen and he enters the weekend with a four-race streak of top-10s on this track that would be perfect if not for an accident with Kevin Harvick in 2007.
Kyle Busch is one of the drivers who can apparently tell the difference between Sonoma and Watkins Glen. His average finish of 18.6 in Sonoma ranks 19th among 22 Cup courses he's run more than twice. Watkins Glen is his second-best track in terms of average finishes with a 9.3. Like Montoya, he struggled in his first attempt there and finished in the 30s, but in six races since then he has swept the top 10. The biggest concern this week will be whether he can elude trouble because it has had an uncanny knack for finding him in recent weeks, but fantasy owners who are willing to roll the dice could find him to be the great differentiator from their competition's roster.
Despite a great career at Watkins Glen and a much-needed victory last week in Pocono, Jeff Gordon should only be regarded a dark horse this week. He has nine road course victories during his career, which is better than anyone in the history of NASCAR and four of those came at the Glen, but he has been much better in Sonoma recently than on this course. The reason for his struggles at the Glen has been a mixture of bad luck and poor strategy, but that defines much of the early part of his season. Furthermore, as good as he has been overall on this track, the fact remains that he has earned only two top-10s in his last 10 Watkins Glen races and that has to cause his team some concern.
Tony Stewart also gets relegated to dark horse status this week because the first chinks in his armor were exposed last year on the road courses. He was involved in incidents at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen that sent him home with results outside the top 25. He was wrecked on Lap 88 at Sonoma by Brian Vickers in retaliation for an earlier incident and finished 39th. At Watkins Glen, he made it all the way to the white flag before getting collected in an incident that caused him to be the final driver on the lead lap and he only earned points for 27th. In 2010, he finished in the top 10 in both road course races, but failed to crack the top five in either event. His second-place result at Sonoma makes him a driver to watch and if he is already on a fantasy roster, there is little incentive to remove him, but success is not guaranteed.
Clint Bowyer's victory at Sonoma was dramatic, but it doesn't help handicap him this week. He is one of the drivers who seem to know the difference between the two road courses. That has not played into his favor at Watkins Glen. Bowyer has six road course top-10s, but only one of those came in New York and that was a ninth in 2009. He was a surprise contender this June in California, but there were hints he would run well with three previous fourth-place results; those are lacking this week and his average finish of 17.5 compared to Sonoma's 9.7 suggests he should be left in the garage.
Ryan Newman's differential between his record at Sonoma and Watkins Glen is not as dramatic as Bowyer's, but it is enough to cause him to be left off most rosters. His career average finish on the California track is 12.9 compared to 16.3 at this week's venue, but he has been even less productive lately. The last time Newman scored a top-10 at Watkins Glen was in 2006 and his average result in those events is almost identical to Bowyer at 17.6.
|Fantasy Power Ranking|
|Road courses (past three years)|
|1.||Marcos Ambrose||4.28||16.||Denny Hamlin||21.04||30.||Scott Speed||28.91|
|2.||Jimmie Johnson||7.13||17.||Jamie McMurray||21.12||31.||Mark Martin||29.43|
|3.||Juan Montoya||8.96||18.||Ryan Newman||21.38||32.||David Ragan||31.31|
|4.||Kurt Busch||9.11||19.||Jeff Burton||22.31||33.||Regan Smith||31.32|
|5.||Tony Stewart||9.41||20.||Joey Logano||22.38||34.||Bobby Labonte||33.43|
|6.||Martin Truex Jr.||12.59||21.||Boris Said||23.80||35.||Sam Hornish Jr.||34.04|
|7.||Kyle Busch||12.71||22.||Matt Kenseth||24.08||36.||Josh Wise||35.55|
|8.||Jeff Gordon||13.19||23.||Casey Mears||26.36||37.||Dave Blaney||36.44|
|9.||Carl Edwards||14.07||24.||Jason Leffler||23.50||38.||Michael McDowell||37.96|
|10.||Clint Bowyer||15.11||25.||Paul Menard||26.56||39.||Landon Cassill||38.44|
|11.||Brad Keselowski||16.43||26.||David Gilliland||27.20||40.||Travis Kvapil||38.64|
|12.||Kasey Kahne||16.67||27.||Aric Almirola||28.27||41.||JJ Yeley||40.43|
|13.||Brian Vickers||17.16||28.||Mike Bliss||28.50||42.||Joe Nemechek||40.46|
|14.||Kevin Harvick||18.77||29.||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||28.78||43.||Stephen Leicht||42.00|
- road courses