Watkins Glen will be a make-or-break race for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
You've got to admire Dale Earnhardt Jr. for his honesty. Ask him a question about anything -- his best all-time pickup line? ("I'm Dale Earnhardt Jr., how are you doing?); what's wrong with NASCAR? ("The races are too damn long") -- and he'll tell you precisely how he feels. So what does he think about road course racing at Watkins Glen (N.Y.), where the Sprint Cup circuit stops on Sunday?
"Hate it, man, hate it," Earnhardt has told me in the past. "Wish we never even raced on road courses."
Earnhardt grew up racing on concrete ovals, just like his dad. But unlike his old man, who had one road course win in his legendary career, Earnhardt Jr. has never sniffed Victory Lane at a track that requires drivers to turn both left and right. In 23 career starts on the road courses at Sonoma and The Glen, Earnhardt has zero wins and only three top-10 finishes. Worse, in his last four starts in upstate New York, Earnhardt hasn't finished higher than 22nd.
This is precisely why this will be the key race of the regular season for NASCAR's most popular driver. Over the last seven events he's fallen from third in the standings to 10th. During this swoon, Earnhardt has had only one finish of 15th or better, last weekend at Pocono, where he came in ninth. Earnhardt has traditionally struggled over the summer months -- the circuit visits his worst tracks, statistically, during this stretch -- and now he's in danger of missing the Chase for the fourth time in the last five seasons.
Earnhardt's problem is this: He doesn't have a win this season. If that doesn't change -- and at this point it's hard to envision him taking a checkered flag in one of the final five regular season races based on his recent performance -- and he falls out of the top 10, he won't advance to the playoffs. Looking closely at the standings, if you're Earnhardt, there's reason to worry. Denny Hamlin, who is currently in 11th and trails Earnhardt by 23 points, is eminently capable of catching fire and ripping off a string of top-five finishes over the next five weeks. If that happens, the odds of Earnhardt qualifying for the Chase will be long.
So what is Earnhardt's goal for this weekend at The Glen? Simply to survive with a top-10 finish.
"I know the road course [at Watkins Glen] could be feast or famine for us," Earnhardt told reporters after the Pocono race. "If we have a bad day there, I really won't be too concerned, but as far as oval racing -- what I love -- I think we're getting a little better at it again."
But Junior should be worried about this weekend. After all, Hamlin is closing in his rearview mirror.
Here are four other drivers -- including my pick to win -- that I'll be watching on Sunday:
Stewart is in ninth place in the standings and has yet to reach Victory Lane this season. Statistically, The Glen is Stewart's best track on the schedule. In 12 starts on the road course, he has five wins and a hard-to-believe 6.2 average finish. Not surprisingly, in the last six Cup starts there Stewart leads the series in average running position (4.7), most fastest laps run (104), best average green flag speed (119.585 mph) and most quality passes (150).
If he takes the checkered flag, Stewart should be a virtual lock to make the Chase.
Hamlin will be racing one person on Sunday: Earnhardt. Hamlin has struggled on road courses in recent races. In his last four combined starts at Watkins Glen and Sonoma, Hamlin's average finish is 29.5. Yet Hamlin has shown flashes of sustained speed at The Glen. In 2007 he finished second.
The general feeling inside the garage is that Hamlin and crew chief Mike Forde will again be serious players in the Chase. Hamlin narrowly lost to Jimmie Johnson in the playoffs last year after entering the season finale with the points lead, and many longtime wrenches will tell you that a driver has to lose a title before he can win one. Does this bode well for Hamlin? Stay tuned.
If Montoya is going to win this season, it will happen Sunday. He has only won twice in his Cup career, and his last victory came in this race last season. It was a dominating afternoon, as he led 74 of the 90 laps.
A former IndyCar and Formula 1 driver, Montoya grew up racing on road courses in Bogota, Colombia, so he's probably turned more laps at these types of tracks than anyone else in the sport. If he doesn't finish in the top five on Sunday, it would be an upset.
In a season defined by first-time winners -- a group that includes Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith, David Ragan and Paul Menard -- Ambrose could be the next driver to join the club. A road racing specialist from Australia, Ambrose hasn't reached Victory Lane in 104 Cup starts. But he should be very, very formidable on Sunday. In three career starts at The Glen, his finishes are third, second, third. Given his expertise at this track, his team, Richard Petty Motorsports, has spent more time preparing for this race than perhaps any other organization.
I think the closing laps of this race will feature a three-man dash to the checkers: Stewart, Montoya and Ambrose. My pick to win: Stewart.