Jeff Gordon appears to have caught momentum.
Yet, 2013 seems much like a year ago when the four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion didn’t clinch a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup berth until the final race of the regular season.
Gordon, who ranked 21st in the standings earlier this year, advanced to ninth place with his runner-up finish to Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne at Pocono Raceway. Yet his hold on the top 10 is tenuous as 13 points cover eighth (Kahne) and 10th (Greg Biffle).
As he’s battled from behind, the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has adopted a points-first approach which appears to be paying dividends. But a victory would be nice — especially as multiple drivers battle for top-10 ranking and potential Chase Wild Card status.
This week’s Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen International (ESPN, noon) plays into the California native’s strengths. It would be no surprise to see Gordon celebrating his 87th Sprint Cup victory.
Gordon is the Sprint Cup’s all-time road racing winner. He’s won nine times overall, four of them coming on The Glen’s seven-turn, 2.45-mile layout. Gordon won three consecutive times in upstate New York (1997-99). Three of his championship seasons have featured a Watkins Glen victory.
Gordon’s current hot streak is reminiscent of past dominance. Will equal a return to road course success?
Gordon won four times and finished among the top 10 in seven of eight seasons between 1994 and 2001, but has a single top 10 in his five most recent Glen starts which includes finishes of 21st, 29th and 37th.
Gordon’s road racing skills haven’t declined. His rivals have closed the performance gap.
“I think the competition has gotten so much stronger at the road courses than it used to be,” he said in Sunday’s post-race interviews. “Where I used to go to the road courses feeling confident that we were going to gain points and have a shot at winning, these days I’ve got to fight hard to get a top 10.”
“But I feel good about our road course program this year. We finished good at Sonoma (second). I felt we learned a lot at the end of the second half of the race at Watkins Glen last year. We kind of more did a test more for Watkins Glen than we did for Sonoma prior to Sonoma so I’m hoping that pays off.”
Gordon would just as soon control his own destiny going to the regular season finale next month at Richmond International Raceway – rather than depend upon what another driver did or didn’t do in 2012.
He’s won multiple races at each of the five remaining tracks comprising the Race to the Chase.
“They’re just good tracks for us and if we can start to put the execution together with the performance, I feel like we have a shot at staying in the top 10,” Gordon said. “The closer we get to Richmond the more aggressive we get. But I also think consistent top fives would do it.
“I think that would get us in. But that’s a lot to ask for.”
NASCAR SPRINT CUP SERIES
CHEEZ-IT 355 At The Glen
at Watkins Glen International
Sunday, 11 a.m. (ESPN)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 220.5 miles (90 laps)
Johnson can clinch berth
It’s that time of the year. One championship contender — Jimmie Johnson — can clinch a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup™ on Sunday at Watkins Glen International.
The five-time Sprint Cup champion is the sole driver holding a clinch scenario this weekend. Johnson has to leave The Glen with a 193-point lead over the 11th place driver. Currently, he holds a 178-point lead over 11th, which is occupied by Tony Stewart.
Stewart will miss Sunday’s race after breaking a leg in a sprint car race on Monday night, and will be replaced by Max Papis in his No. 14 Chevrolet on Sunday. Reigning Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski is 12th, 180 points behind Johnson. Johnson is the only competitor to have qualified for the Chase field in all nine seasons.
A win at The Glen will guarantee Johnson at least a Wild Card entry into this year’s post season. He has won four times already – as has Matt Kenseth. But mathematically — and officially — speaking, Kenseth cannot lock up a Wild Card spot just yet. There are other Johnson finishes that would give the five-time champion at least a Wild Card clinch depending on finishes from other competitors.
While Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, who rank second through fourth, appear to be “locks” for a Chase appearance, each is several races away from an official clinch. Bowyer leads 11th by 101 points; Edwards has 94 points in hand and Harvick is 81 ahead of 11th.
Harvick has two victories and Edwards one. Harvick won at The Glen in 2006. While Bowyer has yet to visit Victory Lane in 2013, the driver of the No. 15 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota has a Sprint Cup road racing win – at Sonoma in 2012. He finished fourth in last year’s Cheez-It 355.
Third win could be ‘Charm’ for Ambrose
Marcos Ambrose, who bested Brad Keselowski in a dramatic, on and off the race track slugfest on the final lap of last year’s Cheez-It 350, is an obvious favorite to win Sunday’s return to Watkins Glen International. The Australian import has beaten Keselowski in successive seasons and would become just the third driver to win three consecutive Glen races. Denny Hamlin was the most recent winner of three straight at a specific track; in 2009-10 at Martinsville Speedway.
A victory likely will qualify Ambrose for Chase Wild Card consideration. He currently stands 22nd but is only five points out of a requisite top-20 ranking.
That probably won’t be enough to give the driver of the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford a post-season berth. Tony Stewart (11th), Martin Truex Jr. (14th) and Ryan Newman (15th) are at least 75 points ahead of Ambrose - a huge gap to overcome with five races remaining.
Effectively Ambrose – and Juan Pablo Montoya, another Glen winner – would have to add an oval victory to their season stats, something neither competitor has been able to do in their NASCAR Sprint Cup careers.
Newman has the easier route. He’s just nine points behind Truex after a victory and fourth-place finish in his past two starts. Former Sprint Cup champions Keselowski and Kurt Busch stand oh-so-close to the top 10 – 12th and 13th, seven and 11 points, respectively outside the top 10.
Keselowski likely would accept another second-place finish. Busch owns a premier series road racing victory at Sonoma Raceway in 2011 and would be the first driver from a single-car team – the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet – to qualify for the Chase.
“I feel very confident now heading back there not to just have speed in qualifying but to have speed throughout the race,” said Busch, reflecting on last week’s Glen test. “It’s an important race. Sonoma is on the calendar in June and the middle of August is much more important.”
Truex aims to join exclusive list
Martin Truex Jr. shocked the NASCAR world in June, winning at Sonoma Raceway to become the seventh different first-time road course winner in the last seven races at Sonoma. Another win, at another road course, would place him on a short list of road course sweepers. In terms of shock value, a Truex win at Watkins Glen on Sunday would make Sonoma look ho hum.
Since Sonoma and Watkins Glen became the only two road-course races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule, only four drivers have swept the two races in the same season. One of those drivers did it twice. The list consists of some of the top road-course talents the sport has ever seen: Jeff Gordon (1998-99), Robby Gordon (2003), Tony Stewart (2005) and Kyle Busch (2008). That’s it.
So, though Truex boasts some solid statistics at Watkins Glen, pulling the road-course sweep would be a surprise. In seven starts, Truex has scored four top-10 finishes (two of those came in the last two races). He hasn’t led any laps at The Glen, but has scored driver ratings over 100 in each of the last two Watkins Glen races. But more importantly, a sweep — or a strong finish — would solidify Truex’s standing in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup battle.
Bowyer sneaky good at road courses
It’s hard to fly under the radar at a race track, or a track type, at which you have won. But that’s exactly what Clint Bowyer has done at road courses.
Known more for his short-track prowess, Bowyer has strung together a brilliant list of finishes at both Sonoma and Watkins Glen over the last two seasons.
Only one driver has scored top-five finishes in each of the last three road course races. It’s not Tony Stewart. It’s not Jeff Gordon. Nor is it Marcos Ambrose or Juan Pablo Montoya.
Only Bowyer has accomplished that feat, winning last year’s Sonoma race, finishing fourth at Watkins Glen last August, and fifth in June at Sonoma.
Only two other drivers have multiple top fives at the two road courses since 2012 — and oddly enough, they’re also not the usually popular picks at road courses (Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch).
Though practically a lock to make the top 10 once the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup starts, Bowyer needs wins — and the vital bonus points that go along with making the top 10.
Once the Chase field is set, each Chase driver’s points will be reset to 2,000, with three additional bonus points added to the top 10 drivers for each win tallied during the first 26 races. Right now, Bowyer is one of three winless drivers in the top 10, along with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Etc.
Owen Kelly will make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start this weekend at Watkins Glen, driving the No. 51 Chevrolet for Phoenix Racing. Kelly, an Australian with roots in V8 Supercars, has raced twice in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, scoring two top fives at Road America. … AJ Allmendinger returns to the seat of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Toyota this weekend. In his two starts in the 47, Allmendinger has finished 19th (Michigan) and 22nd (Kentucky). … Jimmie Johnson led 43 laps at Pocono, which left him eight laps short of 15,000 career laps led. When he hits the milestone, he’ll become the ninth driver to reach accomplish the feat. … Danica Patrick will become the second female driver to starts a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Watkins Glen, joining Patty Moise who raced there in 1987-88 to finishes of 33rd and 30th, respectively.
Smith hopes to regain lead
Over the last seven races, Regan Smith of Cato, N.Y., has compiled 189 points in the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship standings. On the surface that might seem like a healthy amount of points.
After analyzing the stats of his fellow top-10 drivers over the same time period, however, a different picture is painted.
Smith’s points tally of 189 ranks last among all drivers currently in the top 10, indicative of the slide he has taken during that time. Granted he is currently tied with Sam Hornish Jr. for second, 14 markers behind Austin Dillon, and led the standings for 10 consecutive weeks (Talladega through New Hampshire). It was only eight races ago, however, when Smith finished first at Michigan and left the Wolverine State with a 58-point advantage in the standings.
Dillon has led all drivers in the top 10 with 270 points collected over the last seven races, followed by Elliott Sadler (255), Brian Vickers (249), Kyle Larson (248) and Hornish (247). Brian Scott (226), Trevor Bayne (220), Justin Allgaier (212), Parker Kligerman (212) and Smith round out the top 10.
With the series heading to New York for Saturday’s Zippo 200 at Watkins Glen, Smith hopes he’ll be able to reclaim his spot atop the standings in front of a hometown crowd. In six national series start at The Glen, Smith has one top-10 finish, which was a ninth-place performance in last year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. In two NASCAR Nationwide starts at the 2.45-mile road course, Smith has finishes of 19th and 23rd. He struggled in the first road-course event of the season at Road America, where he finished 32nd.
Dillon, who took over the points lead from Hornish two races ago at Indy, is seeking advice from teammate and road-racing specialist Max Papis to ensure that Watkins Glen doesn’t present any hiccoughs. Dillon’s only series start at The Glen resulted in a 23rd-place finish. Earlier this season at Road America, he finished 10th.
NASCAR NATIONWIDE SERIES
ZIPPO 200 At The Glen
at Watkins Glen International
Saturday, 1:15 p.m. (ABC)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 200.9 miles (82 laps)
Hornish’s upper hand: road course experience
With the series headed to Watkins Glen for the Zippo 200, Sam Hornish Jr., who has previous road-course experience from his time in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and IndyCar Series, could use this Saturday as an opportunity to capitalize on that resume, which several of his closest rivals lack.
In six trips to road courses with the NASCAR Nationwide Series, he has finished in the top five in the most recent four. Earlier this season, he finished fifth in the first road-course event of the season at Road America. He posted top-five finishes in all three races on road courses last year, finishing third in The Glen race. In addition, he had a runner-up performance at Montreal and a fifth-place showing at Road America.
He competed seven times at road courses in the NSCS, scoring a fifth and a 14th in his last two events, which were both at The Glen. His 11 career road-course starts in the IndyCar Series were highlighted by a runner-up finish at Watkins Glen in 2007.
Although Hornish has only one win (Las Vegas) to his credit this season, he has collected a series-high four runner-up finishes among points-eligible competitors that have him tied with Regan Smith for second in the standings.
In all four races that he placed second, Hornish finished behind NSCS regulars, thus earning him the most championship points among NNS drivers in three of the events, and tying him with two other drivers for the most points earned in the fourth.
Watkins Glen’s second of 3 road courses
With about a month and a half to prepare since the first road race of the season at Road America, the NASCAR Nationwide Series head to Watkins Glen for the Zippo 200 and the second of three road-course events during the 2013 season.
Instead of having to wait 49 days to apply what they learned during the last road-course event, teams will now be able to take what they learn this Saturday at The Glen and immediately apply it next Saturday in the inaugural trip to Mid-Ohio for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200.
With only one driver in the top 10 who has even won on a road course in the series — Justin Allgaier (Montreal 2012) — it is likely that the next two races will shake up the standings.
The NNS is NASCAR’s only national series that visits three road courses during the season. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits two, while the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series heads to just one.
NASCAR Nationwide Series Etc.
NASCAR Whelen Euro Series driver Anthony Gandon of Bayonne, France, will attempt to make his first national series start this Saturday behind the wheel of the No. 23 Rick Ware Racing Ford.
In eight starts this season in Europe, Gandon has six top-10 finishes. He’s the first NASCAR national series driver from France since Claude Ballot-Lena ran in NSCS in 1979. … Alex Bowman, Parker Kligerman, Kyle Larson, Kevin O’Connell, Travis Pastrana, Bryan Silas and Derek White will all be making their series Watkins Glen debut this weekend.
WORLD TRUCK SERIES
Crafton keeps streak alive
Matt Crafton might not have had the best truck in the field at Pocono Raceway last Saturday afternoon, however, he did what was necessary to pad his points lead – to 52 points over Jeb Burton – and keep his hopes alive to challenge a series record. In the race, Crafton finished eighth for his 11th consecutive top-10 finish to start the season, the fourth-longest such streak in the series.
Could this be a positive sign for things to come when the series reaches its finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November? Ron Hornaday Jr., holds the all-time record for most consecutive top-10 finishes beginning a season at 19 in 1996. It just so happens that was the year the Palmdale, Calif. competitor won the first of his four series titles.
Crafton, also a native Californian from Tulare, has a career-best finish of second place in the final standings in 2009. During that season, Crafton finished the year with 21 top-10 finishes in 25 events. The current streak is the longest of his career to start the year.
Mike Skinner, from Ontario, Calif., won his lone series title in 1995, but he is third all-time with 13 straight top-10s in 2007 — a season in which he finished second in the final standings.
Jack Sprague started the 1998 season with 12 consecutive top-10 finishes en route to a runner-up finish in the final standings. If Crafton can keep his streak intact on Aug. 17 at Michigan International Speedway, the driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Toyota will tie the Spring Lake, Mich. native for third-place all-time on the list.
NASCAR CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES
Michigan National Guard 200
at Michigan International Speedway
Saturday, August 17, 11 a.m. (SPEED)
Radio: MRN, Sirius XM Ch. 90
Distance: 200 miles (100 laps)
Truck chiefs have much MIS experience
Michigan International Speedway is a wide, two-mile track on which a couple of truck chiefs have also competed as drivers. The key will be whether they are able to use their past experiences to help their drivers at Michigan.
Robert Huffman, who currently handles truck chief duties for Brad Keselowski Racing and driver Ryan Blaney, made two starts at the track with a ninth-place finish in 2004. In all Huffman made 40 starts in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series during the 1997 and 2004-05 seasons with eight top-10 finishes.
Huffman, who also won five championships in the former NASCAR Goody’s Dash Series, scored a career-best showing of sixth in Richmond in 2004.
Marty Houston, like Huffman, is from North Carolina and also competed in late models against Huffman at Hickory Motor Speedway early in his career. He competed in 44 NCWTS events in 1999, 2000 and 2003, with a career best showing of fourth in Kentucky in 2000.
Houston, son of 24-time NASCAR Nationwide Series winner Tommy Houston, has been with Dillon since he began competing in the NCWTS full-time and he also has one top-10 finish at MIS (8th in 2000).
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Etc.
Veteran crew chief Joe Shear Jr., winner of seven races with Johnny Sauter, has landed a job as crew chief for Dakoda Armstrong on his Turn One Racing team. … With his second-place finish at Pocono, Miguel Paludo scored his career-best finish in the series while third-place German Quiroga equaled his career best with the podium finish.
Custer Scores Record-Setting Win In K&N East-West Action At Iowa
Cole Custer set two major marks in winning the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East-West combination race at Iowa Speedway on Friday night. He became the youngest winner in series history and also became the first driver to lead every lap in a combination race there. At 15 years, 6 months, 10 days, he’s more than six months younger than previous record holder Dylan Kwasniewski (16 years, 2 months, 6 days). Custer also eclipsed Darrell Wallace Jr.’s East record of 16 years, 5 months, 19 days. It was a dominating day for Custer, the son of Joe Custer, an executive with Stewart-Haas Racing. Custer won his first 21 Means 21 Pole Award presented by Coors Brewing Co. Eddie MacDonald finished second in the race, followed by Daniel Suarez. Greg Pursley, the top finishing K&N West driver, was fourth overall.
Ryan Preece recorded his first NASCAR Whelen Southern Modified Tour victory, leading every lap in the Kevin Powell Motorsports 199 at the historic Bowman Gray Stadium on Saturday. The 22-year-old became the seventh driver in series history to win at the track. It was the second Modified event in as many nights for Preece, who finished 16th in the CARQUEST 150 at Stafford (Conn.) Motor Speedway on Friday evening in NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour action.
Doug Coby captured the checkered flag in that NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour event at Stafford Motor Speedway on Friday. Coby took the lead from pole sitter Bobby Santos on Lap 27 and never looked back en route to his second win of the season.