Monday August 10th, 2009

Five things we learned on Monday in upstate New York at Watkins Glen International:

1. Tony Stewart owns the Glen. For the fourth time in the last six Cup races at the Watkins Glen road course, Stewart took the checkered flag. This was Stewart's third victory of the season -- only Mark Martin, with four W's, has more -- and his second victory in his past five starts. As has been written in this space before, Stewart is at his best during the summer months. He grew up racing in the Midwest on dirt tracks, where cars slide all over the slippery surface, and now when the temperatures rise and the tracks on the Cup circuit become sun-baked and slick, Stewart flourishes.

Expect him to win at least one more race before the start of the Chase on Sept. 20. Stewart, the leader in the points standings, can go all-or-nothing for checkered flags over the final four races of the regular season and try to earn the 10-point Chase bonus that goes along with each checkered flag. Not only can he take chances on the track where others can't -- it doesn't really matter if he crashes, after all -- but his crew chief Darien Grubb can also try daring, exotic setups.

Yet Stewart may not have been the race's biggest winner. Greg Biffle, who was 12th in the standings and squarely on the Chase bubble, had struggled in his career on road courses. Before Monday, Biffle had never had a top-five run at Watkins Glen. But Biffle, when it mattered most, authored one of the best races of his career. He ran with the leaders for most of the afternoon, kept his fenders clean, consistently hit his marks through the turns, and came in fifth, which enabled him to jump to tenth in the standings. If Biffle makes the Chase -- and I think he will, because the final tracks on the regular season schedule are among his best -- then he'll look back on Monday as the day he saved his season.

2. Jeff Gordon won't soon forget the Glen. A little more than halfway through the race Gordon roared out of Turn 9 at about 150 miles per hour. Then, just in front of him, Kasey Kahne nudged Sam Hornish Jr. That caused Hornish to hit a barrier, which triggered an uncommonly-violent six-car crash. Gordon received the worst of it. Hornish's No. 77 Dodge smashed into his driver's side. Gordon's No. 24 Chevy was then re-directed head-on into a steel fence that wasn't lined with a SAFER barrier. It was a vicious lick, the kind that used to send drivers into retirement, but Gordon was able to pull himself out of his car and walk to the ambulance.

Over the past few years Gordon has taken more hard hits than any driver in the sport. He plowed into the wall at Pocono back in 2007 after his brakes went out -- at the end of the longest and fastest straightaway in the Cup series, mind you -- and last year he crashed wickedly into the inside wall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. These wrecks have taken a toll on Gordon's back. He now stretches with a trainer before every race, but on tracks that cause drivers to endure high G-forces and are therefore physically draining, his back sometimes stiffens and causes him pain in the cockpit.

This is why Monday's wreck is especially bad news for Gordon fans. He said he was fine after the race, but drivers usually don't feel the true effects of crashes until the following day. Will Gordon be 100 percent by Aug. 27 for the night race at Bristol, which is one of the most demanding tracks on the circuit? Is it possible that Gordon, currently third in the standings, won't be the same the rest of the season? I doubt it, but stay tuned.

3. Kevin Harvick's days at Richard Childress Racing appear to be limited. Harvick's season has been, in a word, awful. A year after qualifying for the Chase and being a legitimate title contender, he entered the Glen 22nd in the standings and hasn't even sniffed a top-five finish this season. There's been much chatter in the garage that Harvick has been trying to wiggle out of his contract with RCR, but owner Richard Childress has repeatedly said that Harvick is under contract through the 2010 season and he has no plans on releasing him early.

Well, that sentiment may have changed on Monday. After being wrecked early in the race and as his crew was working on his car in the garage, a visibly frustrated Harvick said he "hoped" he wouldn't have to return to the race. This, race fans, is the ultimate no-no in motor sports. Whether or not Harvick actually meant to quit on his team is irrelevant; what's significant here is the perception. Remember when Kyle Busch left a race early at Texas Motor Speedway in the spring of 2007 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. wound up driving his car once it was repaired in the garage? It pretty much sealed Busch's fate with Hendrick Motorsports, which released him at season's end despite the fact that Busch was the best young talent in the series.

This is just a hunch, but I'm guessing Childress will announce in a few weeks, if not sooner, that Harvick won't be returning next season -- which, it appears, is what Harvick really wants.

4. David Reutimann will have to wait until next year. About a month ago I had a long chat with Reutimann. As we walked down pit road at Michigan International Speedway, I asked him what track on the upcoming schedule worried him the most. "Watkins Glen," Reutimann said. "We've really struggled on road courses and that's one place where we could lose some points."

On Sunday Reutimann's worst fears were realized. After qualifying 25th, he finished 25th, which essentially ended his Chase chances. He's now in 16th in the standings and he hasn't exactly flourished on any of the four remaining tracks the circuit will visit before the regular season ends. Reutimann's career average finishes at Michigan (21.2) Bristol (19.0) Atlanta (30.0) Richmond (20.2) make it hard to fathom that he can make up any ground in the standings over the next month.

Reutimann had a credible chance to qualify for his first Chase this season. He emerged as the top driver at Michael Waltrip Racing, and after 14 races this season he was 11th in the points, ahead of such heavyweights as Denny Hamlin and Mark Martin. But since then he's had an atrocious sting of bad luck, which was capped at Pocono last week when Hamlin rammed into his rear bumper, causing Reutimann to bounce off the wall and smash into teammate Marcos Ambrose. Reutimann was running in the ninth position at the time and had a car capable of finishing in the top five; instead, because of Hamlin's overzealousness, he came in 29th. This wreck epitomizes Reutimann's second half of the regular season.

Yet I think Reutimann will be a serious player in 2010. MWR is a team on the rise, and Reutimann has shown flashes this year of being able to run nose-to-nose with the likes of Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart. Of all the drivers who won't be in the Chase, expect Reutimann to score the most points over the final ten races and challenge for a checkered flag.

5. A road course should be in the Chase. Road courses occupy an awkward position in the Sprint Cup series. The circuit makes two stops at road courses -- Sonoma and the Glen -- but there's not one in the Chase. Many drivers (Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. come to mind) view road courses as nuisances and simply try to avoid a points-sapping finish of 25th or worse at these winding tracks. How little do they matter in the big picture of the championship? Well, Jimmie Johnson won the past three titles without even averaging a top-10 finish in his six starts on road courses.

To make road courses more relevant, NASCAR should move the Watkins Glen date into the Chase and take out one of the intermediate-length tracks. There are currently six intermediates in the Chase, which is hugely disproportionate to the number of intermediates on the regular season schedule. The tracks in the Chase should be representative -- in shape, in length, and in degree of banking -- of the tracks in the regular season. Adding a road course would do that.

If the Glen were in the Chase, drivers would be forced to sharpen their road course skills. And it would add another so-called "wildcard" track to the playoffs, along with the restrictor-plate race at Talladega. NASCAR needs to do everything it can to spice up the sport -- all they need to do is look at the sagging TV ratings and the swaths of empty seats each week to realize this -- and putting a road course in the Chase would be a move in that direction.

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