For a brief moment, I was wondering if it was either August or February when NASCAR returned to the track. After a two-week layoff for the Olympics, drivers and teams returned to Watkins Glen International in New York as the grind for the season’s remainder commenced. Watching the Olympics made me entertain the idea of what a racing Olympics would look like. Or, why don’t we see a race like the “World Grand Prix” in Cars 2? One can only dream, right?
The return of racing was ironic in its own way. Not only did teams return after a rare, couple week layoff, but it was also the first time fans in the Empire State got to watch race at Watkins Glen in two years. This is due to NASCAR skipping last year’s race after the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Road courses have proven to be hit or miss for many underdogs in the NASCAR Cup Series. In the Go Bowling at the Glen (Aug. 8), the dark horses of the series had a hard time shaking off the rust from the break.
Top Dog: Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell has proven to be a reliable driver over the years. His loyalty has also shown through, despite the large majority of his career having been spent on underfunded teams. When you think of McDowell finding success, two track types likely cross your mind: superspeedways and road courses. He cemented that notion earlier this year, pulling off a colossal upset in the Daytona 500 and following it up with an eighth-place finish on the Daytona International Speedway road course layout.
A few weeks after his Daytona feats this season, he earned another top 10 at Circuit of the Americas with a seventh-place run. But since then, the veteran has struggled on the rights and lefts of NASCAR. His 21st-place run at Watkins Glen was his best finish in the last three road races, yet he also bested his fellow underdog competitors.
The Phoenix, Ariz. native struggled with tight handling and wheel hop throughout the race and finished 16th and 25th in stage one and two, respectively. And while McDowell typically runs in the top half of the field on road courses, he struggled to crack the top 20 at Watkins Glen.
While a variety of pit road strategies played out throughout the field, the No. 34 team’s plan didn’t pay off that well and resulted in a 21st-place finish and McDowell’s fourth straight result outside the top 20. It’s the exact opposite of the rmomentum a team needs to carry as the series heads into the final three race stretch to the end of the regular season, but another road course and a second trip to Daytona’s superspeedway over the next few weeks offer the No. 34 team a chance to get a shot in the arm before the playoffs begin.
With McDowell leading the underdogs but still outside the top 20, it doesn’t bode well for the remainder of the underfunded teams. Bubba Wallace crept into the top 10 after short-pitting in stage one and spent much of stage two in the top 15 before pit strategy mired him deep in the field before the end of stage two. The result was a struggle through the back half of the field before settling for a 23rd-place finish. The good news for the No. 23 team though, is that with the exception of Sonoma Raceway (14th), it’s Wallace’s best road course finish of the season.
Corey LaJoie earned a 24th-place result, his fifth-straight top 25 showing, and on the surface, that sounds less than stellar until you put it in perspective a little. Aside from a 36th-place run at Pocono Raceway after he was involved in a crash but limped to the finish, Lajoie has finished in the top 25 in nine of the last 10 races. And while Spire Motorsports is still far from competing for wins (except the lightning shortened event at Daytona in 2019), this kind of consistency is something that can be built upon, especially after suffering three DNFs and just four top 25s in the first 13 races.
Erik Jones entered his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race since 2019 with Jordan Anderson Racing, but a brake failure in stage three resulted in a crash and a 36th-place finish. Meanwhile, in Sunday’s Cup race, he was the only underdog driver to actually score stage points. As several drivers who short-pitted before the end of stage one, the No. 43 stayed out on the track and scored a 10th-place stage result. A spin in the inner loop during stage two and a penalty for driving through too many pit stalls under the stage two yellow left Jones deep in the field, and he was only able to recover to 27th.
“The day started off okay,” Jones said following the race. “The No. 43 Clean Harbors Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was good, and we made our way forward. Then we lost track position and got too far back, spun-out and never caught a caution to get caught back up. Not a solid end, but we proved to have an okay car. We just lost the balance a bit through the middle of the race, and got too free and didn’t really have it where we needed it. We will head to another road course next week. I think we learned some good stuff and got a few things better that will carry over.”
Over the past few races writing this column, we have examined the playoff race in the NASCAR Xfinity Series involving two underdogs in Jeremy Clements and Brandon Brown. Following their own return to the track at Watkins Glen, the battle remains eventful. Brown led the charge with a 12th-place finish while Clements garnered a 16th-place showing after suffering a spin earlier. Clements sits fairly comfortable in 11th in the standings, 40 points to the good and 10 ahead of Michael Annett in 12th. Brown finds himself 45 points behind Annett for the final spot. With six races remaining in the series’ regular season, there is plenty of time for a major shakeup to take place before the playoffs begin.
Meanwhile, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series finished off its regular season at Watkins Glen on Aug. 7. With a very impressive season thus far, the Cinderella of the playoffs has to be Niece Motorsports’ Carson Hocevar. A 10th-place result capped off a strong regular season from Hocevar, who has set himself up nicely for a playoff spoiler run. When the series hits World Wide Technology Raceway on Aug. 20, Hocevar will have a one-point advantage over the cut line.
Small Team Scheme of the Week
CarParts.com returned to McDowell’s car at the Glen, sporting an electric looking scheme. The sponsor boosted their support of McDowell earlier in the season with an extra couple of races and a national commercial advertisement with McDowell.
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) August 8, 2021
What to Expect Next
In a season where a lot of new has taken place, more unfamiliarity is set to occur next weekend. The NASCAR Cup Series will take to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course for the Verizon 200, the first time the series will not cross the yard of bricks on the oval layout in its 27-year history in NASCAR.
Meanwhile, the NASCAR Xfinity Series will not have quite the same level of uncertainty, as they became the first series to try the infield layout last season. The series will return to the layout on Aug. 14 as the playoff battle continues to roll on.
What They’re Saying
— Front Row Motorsports (@Team_FRM) August 8, 2021
Win or learn, no losses.
Indy next week and still a lot of fight left in this team. pic.twitter.com/knk2HpusPi
— Bubba Wallace (@BubbaWallace) August 8, 2021
— Spire Motorsports (@SpireMotorsport) August 8, 2021
Checkered flag waves at @WGI ?
— Richard Petty Motorsports (@RPMotorsports) August 8, 2021
A parts failure results in a massive hit for @Erik_Jones.
— NASCAR Xfinity (@NASCAR_Xfinity) August 7, 2021
— Brandonbilt Motorsports (@BMSRaceTeam) August 7, 2021
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