Why does the Glen seem to deliver memorable races? Two reasons: One, with the regular season winding down, drivers on the Chase bubble are feeling increasingly desperate, and therefore are taking more chances on the track. And two, the talent gap between the most skilled drivers on road courses and the ones who struggle on these tracks is large, which also creates conditions that are favorable for wrecking. Ever been on a clogged, winding interstate filled with Drivers Ed students? That's how the elite road course drivers feel at the Glen.
Road course events have long occupied an awkward niche in NASCAR. With only two events on the 36-race schedule that feature left and right turns, the majority of the drivers simply don't take road course racing seriously. It is possible, after all, to win the championship without being a top-end road course racer. For instance, Jimmie Johnson, the winner of the last four series championships, has a career average finish of only 13.0 at the Glen. Most drivers who are aiming to qualify for the Chase merely are hoping to survive this weekend with a top 15 run.
But there are a handful of Cup regulars who excel on road course tracks. Here are the five I'll be watching closely when the green flag drops in Upstate New York on Sunday:
1. Jeff Gordon
This should be Gordon's grand opportunity to finally end his 50-race winless streak, the longest drought of his career. Though he hasn't won here since 2001, Gordon has four career victories at Watkins Glen and, even at age 39, he's still considered one of the top road course racers on the circuit.
Currently second in points, Gordon, as of now, would drop to 12th in the standings when the Chase starts because he has zero victories this season and therefore zero bonus points (drivers are awarded 10 points at the start of the Chase for each win in the regular season). So this is a key race for Gordon and the No. 24 team. If nothing else, he needs to prove that he still has what it takes to reach Victory Lane -- a place he hasn't visited in more than a year.
2. Tony Stewart
Like Gordon, Stewart for the past decade has been widely acknowledged to be one of the top road course racers in NASCAR. And Watkins Glen recently has been his best track on the schedule. He's won this event five of the last eight years, including last season. As long as he doesn't suffer a mechanical failure or get caught up in someone else's crash, Stewart at the Glen is as safe a bet to record a top 5 finish as there is in NASCAR.
3. Kyle Busch
No one in the sport is better at charging through the corners than Busch. He likes an extremely "loose" race car -- meaning the back end of the car tends to slid up the track when he motors through the corners -- and on road courses this usually translates into one thing: elite speed.
Busch won this race in 2008 and has four top-10s in five career starts at Watkins Glen. He's currently sixth in the points but only has two wins. Busch can afford to take chances on Sunday, and I think he will. He'll go all-or-nothing for the checkered flag, which means he'll either wreck or win.
4. Kevin Harvick
Harvick has been the points leader essentially the entire season. Still, he has only two wins, so he would trail both Denny Hamlin and Jimmie Johnson (who have five wins apiece) by 30 points if the Chase started today.
At no point in the season has Harvick flashed the straight-line speed of either Hamlin or Johnson. But he's been more consistent, which is why he's atop the standings. On road courses you don't necessarily need high-end speed to win. Rather, you can reach the checkers by taking chances in the pits, gambling on fuel, and having a perfectly handling car that is smooth through the corners -- even if it isn't the fastest on the straightaways.
Harvick won here in 2006 but since then has finished 36th, sixth, and 35th. Expect him to be like Busch on Sunday and take plenty of chances. After all, he has nothing to lose.
5. Greg Biffle
Last weekend at Pocono Biffle took the checkered flag to snap a 64-race winless streak. The victory vaulted him to 11th in the standings. He's still very much on the Chase bubble so he can't be a risk-taker like Harvick and Busch, but I think Biffle will be a factor late on Sunday.
He'll be driving the same car that he piloted earlier this year at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., where he came in seventh. Last year Biffle finished fifth at the Glen and I would argue that he's been the top driver in the series over the month. After all, he could easily be sitting on three straight wins right now. He was running with the leaders at Chicago on July 10 when he blew an engine late and he finished third at Indy on July 25 after leading 38 laps.
Will he get his second straight win on Sunday? Not according to my crystal ball.
My pick: Jeff Gordon.