by Ryan Isley
Things just might get wild this weekend at Watkins Glen.
If recent history is any indication, this week’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen could be a wild card in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. In four of the past five seasons, the winner at Watkins Glen was a first time winner on the season, including last year’s winner, AJ Allmendinger. Should that hold true again this year, it could throw a wrench into the Chase just as it did with Allmendinger last year, as Allmendinger earned his way into the Chase under the newly adopted Chase eligibility that NASCAR put in place prior to the 2014 season by winning the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.
Having a road course this close to the beginning of the Chase gives a chance to drivers who might not normally be the favorites to win a race. Had the same rules for Chase eligibility been in place since 2010, it would have meant that Juan Pablo Montoya would have made the Chase in 2010 and Marcos Ambrose would have joined the Chase party in 2011 and 2012 based on their wins at Watkins Glen.
Those two wins at Watkins Glen were the only two wins for Ambrose in his Sprint Cup Series career and the win for Montoya was coupled with a win at the other road course – Sonoma – as the only two wins in his Sprint Cup Series career. That’s what makes the new Chase eligibility a little more exciting than under the old formats.
Heading into this season’s Cheez-It 355 at the Glen, there are three drivers who currently sit outside the Chase who could win and change the complexion of the Chase. One driver has just one career win, one is a former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion and the other just might be the hottest driver in the sport right now.
That driver with just one win is the defending champion at Watkins Glen. Allmendinger sits 23rd in the Sprint Cup Series standings, which is actually two spots above where he was heading into last year’s race. While Allmendinger has just three top-5s this season, one of them was last week at Pocono, where he finished 7th.
It should come as no surprise that Allmendinger’s lone career win came at Watkins Glen. In six career starts at the track, Allmendinger has four top-10s and has never finished worse than 13th. The four top-10s are his best at any track and Watkins Glen is the only track where Allmendinger has carded multiple top-5s with his win in 2014 and a fourth-place finish in 2010. Allmendinger’s average finish of 7.8 at Watkins Glen is twice as good as his second-best track, a 16.2 average finish at Atlanta.
The former Sprint Cup Series champion who could change the Chase with a win this weekend is Tony Stewart, who is currently 25th in the standings. What has been a disappointing season thus far for Stewart could finally see a bright spot if he can find his old form and race his way into the Chase with a win at Watkins Glen.
The thought of Stewart winning at Watkins Glen shouldn’t come as a surprise. The three-time series champion has found victory lane five times at Watkins Glen, the most all-time by any driver. Stewart also leads active drivers with top-5s (seven) and top-10s (10) at the track. In fact, his 7.9 average finish is second only to Allmendinger.
The difficult part for Stewart is that he has not raced at Watkins Glen since finishing 19th in 2012. He missed the race in 2013 after breaking his leg in a sprint car race and then missed the race last season after being involved in the accident that resulted in the death of Kevin Ward, Jr.
While Stewart has not found success in the last two Sprint Cup Series races he has run at Watkins Glen (he finished 27th in 2011 before the 19th in 2012), he was as good as anyone could hope to be for almost a decade prior. In the nine races from 2002 to 2010, Stewart picked up five wins to go with two runner-up finishes and a 7th-place finish. His average finish over that nine-race span was an astounding 3.0.
The third driver is Kyle Busch, who isn’t in the Chase for a different reason than Allmendinger and Stewart. Nobody in NASCAR enters the race this weekend (or any of the past few weekends) with more confidence and momentum than Busch. The 30-year-old driver had won three straight races and four of the last five heading into last week, where he held the lead before running out of gas on the final lap.
With four wins already this season, Busch would already be in the Chase if he was in the top-30 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points standings. But after missing 11 races following an injury in the season’s first weekend, Busch remains 13 points out a spot in the Chase. A win at Watkins Glen would almost assuredly slide Busch into the top-30 and into his rightful place in the Chase.
Busch finished 40th at Watkins Glen in 2014, but had a string of eight consecutive top-10s at the track prior to that. Included in that streak was two wins and a 3rd-place finish. Busch’s 11.8 average finish is fourth among active drivers, behind just Allmendinger, Stewart and Carl Edwards.
This could be the final race before the Chase that produces a different driver’s entry into the Chase. So strap in good and tight, because Watkins Glen is about to get wild.