Earnhardt Jr. Remains Out, Gordon Still in for Milestone at Watkins Glen

This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series head up north to the southern tip of Seneca Lake in New York to Watkins Glen International for some road course racing. The second and final for the NSCS, and the second of four in the NXS. The Cheez-It 355 (90 laps, 355 km) will take place on Sunday, August 7 just after 2:30 p.m. ET on USA Network and the Zippo 200 (82 laps) will take place on Saturday, August 6 just after 1:30 p.m. ET on CNBC.

Big things are happening in NASCAR. Chris Buescher is now Chase eligible by virtue of his win last weekend at Pocono, and Kurt Busch did something that’s never been done in the history of NASCAR. Although the sport’s most popular driver remains sidelined due to concussion-like symptoms, his replacement, and one of the best drivers in the history of auto racing, Jeff Gordon, is making his 800th career start this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Earnhardt Jr. was back at the track on Friday for the first time since Kentucky, his last race before announcing his hiatus. He spoke with the media about a wide variety of topics.

“My doctors have a good understanding of my history and what I’ve been through, and with their own personal knowledge that they have throughout their careers to give me a clear understanding of when I’ll be ready to go back and get in a race car,” Earnhardt Jr. said to reporters at the media center at WGI. “My intention is to get back to racing. I’m not ready to stop racing. I’m not ready to quit.”

Earlier this week, Hendrick Motorsports announced that the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet would miss at least two more races (Watkins Glen and Bristol), giving him three more weeks to recover (off weekend in between). Until he is ready to get back behind the wheel, Gordon will continue to pilot the No. 88 car.

Earnhardt Jr. tweeted an update after a positive visit with his doctor earlier in the week.

But this weekend is still about the racing. WGI had a major facelift in the offseason, as the 3.40-mile, 11-turn road course underwent a $12 million repave project and Goodyear has brought a new tire that has next to no falloff. Usually throughout a run, the tire wears quite a bit causing lap times to slow. However this weekend, lap times have remained stagnant throughout a run. This will make for some interesting strategy come Sunday afternoon.

With the tires holding speed, teams will be able to afford to gamble, especially if they’ve already won a race. Usually, pit stops happen every 35 or so laps. However, fuel mileage may be pushed to the brink. I wouldn’t be shocked if drivers were saving fuel from the drop of the green flag, and went somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 laps on one tank of Sunoco fuel.

Drivers such as Kyle Larson, Trevor Bayne, Austin Dillon, Ryan Blaney and AJ Allmendinger will be among those to watch. They are right on the cut line of the playoffs, and will do whatever it takes to drive (or coast) into victory lane and clinch a playoff spot.

Joey Logano won this race last season. He ended up passing Kevin Harvick in the final corner, as the No. 4 car ran out of fuel. Logano swept the weekend, as he won the NXS race the day prior. Tomorrow, he starts from the pole in that race in the No. 12 car for Team Penske.

Logano and Harvick are among the favorites for the weekend. Along with them is Allmendinger (road course specialist who won this race in 2014), Kyle Busch (defending champion and has four wins in 2016), Tony Stewart (two-time winner at The Glen), and Brad Keselowski (tied for the NSCS lead in wins). However, I think someone else will claim victory.

I’m going with the six-time champion, Jimmie Johnson to win. I called my shot this week on Victory Lane and I’m sticking by it. Enjoy the races, everybody – as well as the Olympics!