Go Bowling at the Glen
August 1, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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If you want the perfect microcosm of the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series season, just take a look at the past three races. Martin Truex Jr. won at Kentucky, Kevin Harvick won at New Hampshire and Kyle Busch won Sunday at Pocono. After 21 races completed, those three drivers have combined to win 16 races. The Big-3 are the big story of the season.
This week the series travels to Watkins Glen International for some road course racing, the second of three road course races this season. Truex won at Sonoma Raceway in June and the new twist this season is the Sept. 30 race at Charlotte where they'll incorporate the infield road course as well as the banking of the oval calling it a roval. The more road courses, the merrier. Let's put Road America on the schedule as well, or do a street circuit in some city -- downtown Las Vegas.
I'm a huge fan of the road courses and love seeing those big heavy cars make left and right turns. Formula-1 and IndyCar are fun to watch on the street circuits and road courses as well, but what I like more about NASCAR is the bumping and banging with no fear of harming the car. If a driver bumps another in F-1, his day is over. In NASCAR, it's just a dent in the fender.
Despite the road courses being somewhat of an equalizer, Truex has won the past two. He won this race last season and then Sonoma in June. He's got three road wins total, second-best among active drivers behind Kyle Busch who has four.
This is the new era of road racing in NASCAR with Jeff Gordon (record 9 road wins) and Tony Stewart (8 wins) retired. We also don't have Juan Pablo Montoya or Marcos Ambrose. It's all up for grabs now, but Truex has had an amazing set-up which is going to be hard to beat this week. However, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has Kyle Busch listed as the 3-to-1 favorite. Truex and Harvick are each listed at 4-to-1.
Kyle Busch has two Watkins Glen wins, the last coming in 2013, and Harvick has a 2006 win there. But I'm already tired of talking about those three and the low odds reflecting their weekly dominance. Enough about them.
Here are a couple drivers we might be able to find decent odds on that should compete well and have a chance to win. Last season, Daniel Suarez (40/1) finished third at Watkins Glen and he's fresh off a runner-up at Pocono last week. He's on the upswing. He's carrying some momentum and confidence into this weekend.
Suarez's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin won at Watkins Glen in 2016 and was fourth last season. He's the only driver in the series to have four top-five finishes in the past five road course races. He sits 11th in the standings, but he absolutely hates not being automatically qualified for the Playoffs. All he has to do is win and he's in, just like Austin Dillon did way back in the Daytona 500, but the Big-3 is hogging all the wins. Dillon sits seventh in the standings with just 402 points, but he's got a win. Hamlin has 618 points.
This is Hamlin's shot and I'm rolling with him just because the 15-to-1 odds dared me to. He's my feature player this week.
Clint Bowyer has 10 top-five finishes in 25 road course starts, including a win at Sonoma in 2012. He was third at Sonoma in June, runner-up there in 2017 and fifth last year at Watkins Glen. That's a top-five finish in all three road course races since joining Stewart Haas Racing. And don't forget that Tony Stewart won in the SHR No. 14 at Sonoma in 2016. Bowyer has been very good on both tracks, but the only thing similar about each is making a few right turns.
“There is such a sensation of speed at Watkins Glen,” said Bowyer. “It is a wild racetrack and you have to be on your toes. If you slip up the least little bit, you are not only going to crash, you are going to crash hard. I think of it like this – Sonoma is like a short track and Watkins Glen is like a superfast, 1.5-mile track. That’s the speed difference.”
Bowyer expands more on the road course differences.
“You are way more at ease at Sonoma. It’s a finesse, rear-grip, take-care-of-your-tires type of track. I think it is a much more technical track. When you go to Watkins Glen, it’s a ton of fun but it’s a whole different beast. It’s wide open. It’s balls to the wall. You have to be extremely good on braking and have a fast racecar. Both of them are a ton of fun and so unique. That is the thing. We race and chase each other in circles non-stop. It is refreshing to have a break like this when we come to these road courses.”
Yes, the change of pace is also great for the fans and bettors. And I could certainly listen to Bowyer talk about racing all day long.
We don't see many ringers on the road courses anymore because most of the regular drivers have made themselves good at them, but we still have a few regulars on the circuit that are very accomplished beginning with A.J. Allmendinger who captured his only Cup win in 2014 at Watkins Glen.
"Every turn is important at Watkins Glen because there are so few compared to Sonoma, but you also need to have the aerodynamics for the straightaways," said Allmendinger who is 25-to-1 to win Sunday. "But overall, I have so much fun road course racing since it’s in my racing background and I’m just really looking forward to having a good weekend for our Kroger ClickList team and our Kroger racing partners coming out for the event.”
Usually, Allmendinger is 500-to-1 to win, but his amazing road skills immediately make up for the fact that his No. 47 JTG Daughtery Camaro is junk-slow. No, he's a contender. He hits his marks better than anyone making turns and shaves a few tenths of a second on each lap better than most of the elite team cars. He's started ninth or better in his last 10 road courses and has led laps in seven of his last nine road races.
He's also desperate this week which I like. This is his Playoffs. He's got to win this week if he has any hopes of making the Playoffs. It's a wild card. Five races to go and he sits in no man's land in 23rd. It's all or nothing for Allmendinger this week. Also, keep an eye on his teammate Chris Buescher (200/1) in the No. 37 who has great road skills himself. At Sonoma, he was ninth in each of the first two stages and finished 12th.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
2) #14 Clint Bowyer (8/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (4/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
5) #41 Kurt Busch (10/1)