Watkins Glen isn’t popular, but it will be a good race

Published 11:48 pm Friday, August 7, 2009

Andy Lally, Tony Ave, Brian Simo, and Max Papis are not names you usually hear on a typical NASCAR Sunday afternoon. But this week’s race is not typical as its one of only two road course races on the schedule.

This week’s event is at Watkins Glen International in New York. In terms of distance, this track is the third longest, behind Talladega and Daytona, track on the schedule at 2.45 miles, but it is also one of the slowest tracks given the 11 turns the drivers must navigate. The race record for this track is a shade over 103 miles per hour set by Mark Martin in the mid-nineties.

The “road course ringers” that always pop up for the road course races will be in attendance this week as well. In addition to the aforementioned Lally, Ave, Simo, and Papis, Boris Said, Ron Fellows, and P.J. Jones fall into the specialist category. These drivers always seem to qualify well, but when is the last time one of ringers actually threatened to win one of these races? Fellows and Said seem to do the best of this group.

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Many NASCAR fans loathe these races and on a popularity scale, Watkins Glen and Sonoma would rank near the bottom of the list. Last week’s venue, Pocono, is probably the only round track that would even compete with the disdain of these tracks.

But I actually enjoy watching these races. It’s a change of pace and a true test of a driver’s ability. There are thousands of gearshifts, thousands of times braking, and that many more engaging of the clutch.

And unlike many of the tracks on the circuit, qualifying at Watkins Glen is incredibly vital to success. In the last 23 races here, 18th is the deepest starting position that an eventual winner began the race. Steve Park won in 2000 after beginning the race 18th. And only six times has the winner come from outside the top ten starting positions. Needless to say, passing at this track is at a premium.

Jimmie Johnson, who surprisingly has never won a road course race, will start the race Sunday from the pole, with Kurt Busch on the outside. The best of the ringers in qualifying was Boris Said, who will start ninth, and Lally, who starts 15th.

Several drivers who are battling to either get eligible for the chase or stay eligible for the chase have long rows to hoe Sunday. Matt Kenseth, 104 points inside the top-twelve, qualified 42nd, while Clint Bowyer, who needs a string of good showings, qualified 38th.

Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart lead all active drivers with four wins each at Watkins Glen and Mark Martin has three wins here. In a testament to the difficulty of this track, only three other active drivers have won here. The winner of last year’s race, Kyle Busch, Robby Gordon, and Kevin Harvick are in that group.

Have a good time Sunday with this race and watch a first time winner visit Victory Lane when Marcos Ambrose takes the checkers.