Race Weekend Central

Who’s Hot and Who’s Not: NASCAR’s Right-Turn, Left-Turn Edition

There was a time when the two road races on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule were like sideshows, separate from the main event and not exactly fan favorites.  Drivers who had limited road course experience simply struggled to survive. But after the last few seasons of weaker competition on ovals, better driver preparation and a higher level of aggression overall the tide has turned here. Especially after Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen, following some strong competition at Sonoma earlier this year, these races are becoming main events all to themselves.

A second straight sellout of the Glen’s grandstand seats seems to back that assertion up. It turns out that NASCAR’s ability to use a bumper, as opposed to IndyCar and Formula 1, has made this Sprint Cup Series pure entertainment to watch on road courses.

HOT
Before this season, Denny Hamlin might not have been thought of as one of the top road course racers in NASCAR. But after a near-win at Sonoma followed by a victory at Watkins Glen, Hamlin has arrived as a serious contender at right-turn events. It’s true that Sunday at Watkins Glen Hamlin was the beneficiary of the Kyle BuschBrad Keselowski personal rivalry, both men taking each out as they went wide on a restart. The scrap allowed third-place Hamlin to slip on by for the lead, capture track position and cruise to an eventual win. That contact, just one example of what makes these road course races so good perhaps is karma from the universe for when Tony Stewart knocked Hamlin out of the way to win in June.

NOT
One driver who needed a good finish to help his chances to make the Chase, a man who appeared to have a good finish all but wrapped up at the Glen was Kyle Larson. Larson was looking at a fifth-place finish heading into the final corner when he got “Dinged” by AJ Allmendinger, contact that sent Larson spinning into the wall, unable to cross the finish line and leaving him slumped in 29th. Allmendinger apologized, saying the hit wasn’t intentional but that doesn’t change the end result. Now, Larson sits in the precarious 16th and final spot in the Chase standings (more on that in the next item) and is 30 points behind 15th-place Jamie McMurray. All that with Chris Buescher lurking right outside the top 30 in the standings, a shift that would knock Larson out with little time to make up the deficit.

(Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)
Despite a late-race wreck at Watkins Glen Chris Buescher creeped ever closer to Chase contention. (Photo: Russell LaBounty/NKP)

HOT
Speaking of how every point matters, Buescher and his crew are literally counting every point during each race. Buescher got the required win to make the Chase at Pocono last week, and after finishing 30th on Sunday sits three points out of being in the required top 30 to make the Chase. Buescher’s crew deserves a big thumbs up as he spun on a late caution. While others hit the garage, done for the day they were able to get a quick fix on the car to get the No. 34 back on the track and inch that much closer to their Chase dream.

NOT
It doesn’t seem to matter what kind of track it is, or if bad luck happens to one or more of their drivers. Amazingly enough, the Hendrick Motorsports team has become a regular in this column. It went another week without a driver in the top 10, with the best finish coming from rookie Chase Elliott in 13th Sunday. Six-time champ Jimmie Johnson? How about him finishing dead last. It’s one of those hard-to-believe scenarios playing out right now for a team that once dominated NASCAR competition. Unless the team starts turning things around soon, you have to wonder if Johnson and Elliott will be factors in the Chase at all.

HOT
Surviving through Sunday’s mess, his final NASCAR road course start, Tony Stewart ended up with another top-5 finish at the Glen. He now sits solidly in the Chase, a ticket punched with his win at Sonoma and sits 26th in points despite missing the year’s first eight races. It’s clear Stewart, at age 45 appears in great health after an off-road dune buggy accident threatened to derail the retirement tour in January. Five top-5 results plus another two top 10s leave Stewart as one of the circuit’s most consistent drivers this season.

Just for comparison’s sake, Kyle Busch missed the first 11 events last year after his leg injury. After his first 14 races back, Busch was 27th in points with eight top 10s of his own. The big difference? Four wins, not one as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver was en route to winning his first title.

I’m not saying Stewart is automatically going to follow in those footsteps. I am saying, based on this comparison, that he has a better chance to than people might think.

NOT
Let’s face it. It’s been an incredibly difficult few days to be a race fan. When you lose someone like Bryan Clauson, who by all accounts was just as gracious to fans off the track as he was tenacious on it, it’s just hard stuff. Sure, you can say, the drivers know there is risk when they strap into a car, but that doesn’t make a loss like this any easier to deal with. Clauson was a racer’s racer. He talked at times about how much he loved being a race car driver. And maybe that’s the one lesson we can take away from a life that ended way, way, way, too early. Don’t be afraid to love and do something you love.

Predictions
After a week off, the Sprint Cup series heads to Bristol for their annual night race on Aug. 20. Peeking ahead a bit, I’m going to go with Brad Keselowski to win. He’s certainly not afraid to use his bumper and is knocking on the door of Victory Lane with two straight top-3 finishes in Cup.

A deep, sleeper underdog who you might not think about picking for Bristol is Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. He has three top 10s in his last five races there as Roush Fenway Racing continues to take steps forward in their rebuilding process.

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