Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – WATKINS GLEN, NY – NASCAR Cup Series racing on road courses consistently features some of the most skilled, high stakes competition of the season.
This week’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3 p.m. ET on the USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) includes all that PLUS the extra pressure of impacting the 2023 Playoff picture with only two races remaining to formally set the 16-driver field.
Finding a compelling storyline to follow this weekend will not be a problem.
Current NASCAR Cup Series championship leader, Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. arrives in upstate New York with a 60-point lead on his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin in second place. If he can pick up a point and hold a 61-point edge over the field by Sunday’s checkered flag, the Regular Season Championship – and the all-important 15-point bonus – will be his.
The 2017 series champion would match Richard Childress Racing driver Kyle Busch (2018 and 2019) as the only two drivers to win multiple regular season titles. Truex is one of eight former Watkins Glen winners in the field, claiming the 2017 trophy en route to his season championship.
While the top of the standings could well be wrapped up this weekend, it’s a vastly different story at the 16th-place Playoff cutline. Front Row Motorsports’ driver Michael McDowell claimed another automatic bid with his popular victory last weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.
With the trophy, McDowell becomes the 13th driver to secure a Playoff position with a win, joining Truex, Hamlin, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
And this is where things get super interesting. Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, who is retiring at the end of this season, is tops among the points standings after the race winners with a 145-point advantage on 16th place. Just below him in points is RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski, 143 points to the good. A new winner, however, could certainly complicate their situations.
With two races to go, that 16th place position is most vulnerable. 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace holds a 28-point advantage over Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez. Wallace, who is competing to earn his first NASCAR Cup Series Playoff appearance, will need to step up his game at the 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International. His average finish in four starts is 27.8 and his best finish is 23rd in 2021. Wallace has never won on a NASCAR Cup Series road course.
Suarez, the driver of the No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet, won on the Sonoma, Calif. road course last year. He has three top-five finishes in five starts at Watkins Glen and his average finish there is 12.0.
“We just need to keep doing what we are doing,” Suarez said. “That’s qualify well and earn stage points and get a good finish. There is still a lot of racing left and we know we can do this. If we have as good a car at Watkins Glen as we had at Indianapolis, we know we can win there. That’s true about Daytona as well.”
Just behind them in the standings is rookie Ty Gibbs – 49 points behind Wallace. A win at Watkins Glen this week or Daytona International Speedway in next week’s regular season finale would make Gibbs only the sixth rookie to land a Playoff position.
The driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – the 2022 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion – earned four road course wins in his Xfinity Series career – including a 2021 trophy at Watkins Glen. Gibbs, Busch, Chastain and Alex Bowman will get a head-start on competition this weekend, competing in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race.
One of the biggest stories heading to The Glen involves the two-time race winner there, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott. The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series champion has valiantly worked his way up the standings after missing six total races – five with injury and a one-race NASCAR suspension. But 80-points behind Wallace, Elliott will most likely need a victory to ensure his eighth consecutive NASCAR Cup Series Playoff bid at this point.
The good news for the sport’s Most Popular Driver is that he is not only good at Watkins Glen but boasts the top average finish (5.667) in the field. Elliott earned his first career series victory on the road course in 2018 and the driver of the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet backed it up the next year – one of only three active drivers (Larson and Busch) to have multiple wins at Watkins Glen.
In six starts at the road course, Elliott has won two races, two pole positions and scored four top fives on the 2.54-mile course. His Hendrick teammate Larson is the two-time defending race winner, and a victory Sunday would make him only the third driver in history to win three straight at Watkins Glen – joining NASCAR Hall of Famers Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.
Practice is Saturday followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 12:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.
NASCAR Xfinity Series is still painting the Playoff picture with four races to go
The NASCAR Xfinity Series is closing in on its own Playoff scenario with the Shriner’s Childrens 200 at Watkins Glen (3:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the Regular Season Championship is anything but decided with four races remaining.
Current leader, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill takes an 11-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing driver John Hunter Nemechek into Watkins Glen. One or the other has led the championship every week of the season – and they have dueled it out directly, exchanging the lead for the last 15 weeks.
Hill finished 30th in his only previous start at Watkins Glen but has improved his road course record this season with top-10 finishes in five of the first six road course races of 2023 – including a fourth-place showing last week at Indianapolis. Nemechek has only a pair of top-10 finishes in road courses this season, with a best of runner-up at the Chicago Street Race.
When it comes to road course racing in the Xfinity Series, veteran Justin Allgaier and his young JR Motorsports teammate Sam Mayer have been setting the pace in 2023.
Allgaier has four top-five finishes on the road courses this season, including a runner-up at Portland, Ore. and in 11 starts at Watkins Glen, Allgaier has finished inside the top-10 seven times.
The 20-year old Mayer earned his first career Xfinity Series win on a road course last month at his “home track,” Wisconsin’s Road America and was runner-up last weekend at Indianapolis.
Eight drivers have secured positions in the 12-driver Playoff field with wins this season, including Hill, Nemechek, Allgaier, Cole Custer, Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton. JRM’s Josh Berry is ranked highest in points among those without a trophy.
The 12th and final points position is held by Hill’s teammate Sheldon Creed. He’s up 17 points on Big Machine Racing’s Parker Kligerman – both well-regarded road course racers.
It’s a busy Saturday for the drivers. Practice is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET on Saturday followed by qualifying at 11 a.m. – both streamed on the NBC Sports App. The race follows at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Qualifying has been especially important at Watkins Glen with the front row easily producing the most race winners (17 time in 28 races). Nine times a driver has won from pole position, seven times the outside pole-sitter has won.
Larson is the defending Xfinity Series race winner – sweeping the NASCAR weekend in 2022.