Playoff push heads to Watkins Glen

Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Right and left turns only happen twice on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Once out west, once out east. One is slow, technical and nitpicky. One is fast, aerodynamic-sensitive and rhythm-driven. Both are extremely challenging.

This weekend, NASCAR is in the Fingerlakes Region of New York (and so am I, peep that dateline though) for the I Love NY 355 at The Glen from Watkins Glen International. As the regular season continues to wind down, drivers are vying for the final few playoff spots. And if past races at the upstate New York road course have been any indication, it’s about to get wild.

WHAT: I Love NY 355 at The Glen. 220.6 miles, 90 laps. Stages of 20, 20 & 50 laps, respectively

WHEN: Sunday, August 6, 2017. Green flag scheduled to fly at 3:18 p.m. ET on NBCSN

WHERE: Watkins Glen International, 2.45-mile, 11-turn road course in Watkins Glen, NY

FAVORITES: Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch (4/1) and Brad Keselowski (8/1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Denny Hamlin earned his second victory of the 2016 season and first of his career on a road course in this event one year ago. This year, Hamlin has Regan Smith on standby to drive the No. 11 if needed, as his wife Jordan Fish is expecting their second child to be born soon.


THE FIELD

Kyle Busch will start on the pole for the I Love NY 355 on Sunday afternoon. His lap of 126.925 mph (69.460 seconds) was good enough for his third pole in a row, sixth pole of the season and 25th of his career.

Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott and Daniel Suarez round out the top five starters, with Erik Jones, AJ Allmendinger, Brad Keselowski, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer rounding out the top 12. Hamlin will start in the rear due to the No. 11 team changing brakes before the race.

Some notable starters outside the top 12 include Joey Logano in 13th, Matt Kenseth in 15th, Kevin Harvick in 20th, Danica Patrick in 25th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 28th.


TOYOTA IS HERE

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

You hear that? It’s Toyota knocking on the door. And it’s about to be busted open.

Martin Truex Jr. has been dominant all season long. Fourteen stage wins, three race wins, the most laps led, the most playoff points, the list goes on. Plus, he could have won the other road course race this season in Sonoma if it weren’t for a blown engine.

But Kyle Busch is here now, too. He finally got that monkey off his back by virtue of winning last weekend at Pocono. And don’t look now, but he’s tied for third in playoff points with Kyle Larson and Brad Keselowski with 13, he has two wins, five top fives and 10 top 10’s at Watkins Glen and, of course, won his 90th XFINITY race on Saturday. Rowdy is getting hot.

Photo: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Plus, Denny Hamlin is the defending winner of this race, Daniel Suarez is a very talented road racer, Matt Kenseth has been coming on strong as of late and Erik Jones is knocking on the door of battling for race wins and leads the current Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings over Suarez.

Larson is in a slump. Jimmie Johnson is too. Will they get it turned around? You bet. But as the dog days of summer heat up, so is Toyota. They eclipsed 100 MENCS wins last weekend, and it looks like 101 might be a pretty safe bet when the checkered flag flies on Sunday afternoon.


ARE THE RINGERS DEAD?

There was once a time where “road course ringers” invaded the NASCAR circuit twice a year in Sonoma and at The Glen. Names like Ron Fellows, Scott Pruett, Max Papis and Boris Said were synonymous with running up front at road courses, but now they’re all gone.

In fact, Said announced his last NASCAR race would be this weekend. Plus, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch have developed themselves into the best road course racers on the circuit. Honorable mentions to Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano as well. But Cup regulars don’t just gloss over road courses anymore. They prepare for them. Study them. And win at them.

Plus, eight of them ran the XFINITY Series race on Saturday. And funny enough, they’re all pictured in this photo that happens to show the top six drivers. Shocking, I know.

Photo: Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images
Photo: NKP

AJ Allmendinger can be considered a road course ringer to a certain extent. He comes from a road racing background, but he has been in NASCAR full-time for almost a decade. In his career at WGI, the Dinger has one win, three top fives, five top 10’s and an average finish of 9.4 in eight career starts. Last season in this event, he came home fourth in the No. 47 Chevrolet.

But JTG Daugherty Racing as an organization has been a bit slow this season. And with the Cup regulars such as Keselowski, Truex Jr., Busch, Logano and others posting fast speeds in practice, some needing to win and showing no signs of slowing down, the No. 47 might be out of luck.


PARITY PARTY

Get this: in the last 10 races, there have been 10 different winners. Folks, that doesn’t happen.

Austin Dillon (Charlotte), Jimmie Johnson (Dover), Ryan Blaney (Pocono), Kyle Larson (Michigan), Kevin Harvick (Sonoma), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Daytona), Martin Truex Jr. (Kentucky), Denny Hamlin (New Hampshire), Kasey Kahne (Indianapolis) and Kyle Busch (Pocono) make up those 10 winners. They also come from eight different teams. Folks, that doesn’t happen.

But apparently, nobody told these guys that, because it did happen. I wasn’t alive for the “golden age” of the sport when guys like Richard Petty, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, etc. won almost every race by multiple laps sometimes. The rules package that’s in place nowadays, as well as the caliber of drivers, makes the playing field so level. So I guess parity does and can happen.


TIME IS TICKING…

In more than one way, too. Not only are the races winding down for drivers to punch their ticket to the playoffs, but time is running out for drivers to figure out what their 2018 plans are.

Photo: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

Will Joey Logano win this weekend? If not, can he at Michigan? If not then, will he get in at all? My stance for the past month or so is no, he won’t get in. And I’m sticking by that. But now Clint Bowyer had closed the gap on Matt Kenseth for the final spot. Who gets it? Will somebody come out of the woodworks and grace Victory Lane to steal a playoff spot? We shall see.

But Kenseth, a former Cup champion, along with Kurt Busch, another former champion, have yet to announce their 2018 plans. Kenseth is out of the No. 20 for JGR. We know that. And we learned this week that Busch’s option to drive the No. 41 for SHR next season was not picked up by the team. But his “phone didn’t stop ringing all week” from potential employers, according to a report from KickinTheTires.net on Saturday afternoon. And we still don’t know what Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr.’s plans are, nor Danica Patrick or Kasey Kahne.


PREDICTION

As stated this week on Victory Lane, I figured I’d be a little mainstream and go with AJ Allmendinger to win the I Love NY 355 at The Glen. Maybe he can get his second career victory at WGI this weekend, we shall see. My dark horses are Daniel Suarez and Michael McDowell.