Watching Watkins Glen: A Look By The Numbers
Stewart Was A Threat To Win
Check out virtually any racing site online and two facts are abundantly clear heading into Watkins Glen. #1, Tony Stewart missed a huge opportunity this week as he's won four of the last ten races there and has led over 21% of the laps during that timeframe. #2, Marcos Ambrose is the prohibitive favorite in Smoke's absence. He's won two of the last 5 Glen events and finished in the top five in the other three events. Even if Ambrose does win on Sunday, there are a number of other interesting items to keep in mind going into Sunday's Cheez-It at the Glen.
Unlike most of the year, the race will feature a total of seven drivers running the course in a Cup car for the first time. With only 43 teams entered for the race, all seven are guaranteed a spot in the main event. Ricky Stenhouse and Danica Patrick have run the entire series schedule, but joining them will be Alex Kennedy, Victor Gonzalez Jr., Owen Kelly, Brian Keselowski and Tomy Drissi. Kennedy is a particularly interesting case as he's run a number of road courses at the Nationwide level the past four years despite being only 21 years of age. Yet he's only had one full season schedule to date (a tenth place finish in the K&N East in 2009 at 17). It's too bad that he'll likely start and park at the Glen, as will Keselowski. It's unknown whether the other new faces will do likewise.
Will Busch Win Again?
Road courses often lead to varying pit strategies. Most teams work backwards from the end of the race, calculating the absolute minimum number of pit stops necessary to make the end of the race. Given the different mileage figures attained by different teams, this results in cars coming down pit road at varying times throughout the race. Teams already a near-lock for the Chase may be tempted to stretch that mileage to go for the win, as will teams gambling on a possible wild card to bail out their season. The possibility of a wreck late also makes calculating mileage a risk as up to three green-white-checkered finishes could occur. Running out of gas at the Glen is effectively a death sentence so just how close to the edge will teams push it?
One car to watch is Kyle Busch's #18 Toyota. Busch has competed in eight Glen races coming into this weekend. While he's won only one of them, he's led almost 22% of the scheduled laps in those events and finished in the top ten seven times. Busch rarely gets mentioned as one of the series' best road course racers but no one has led the same percentage of laps that Busch has. Only Tony Stewart has as many top tens in the last decade and it took him ten races to do it.
Menard Is Looking For A Better Start
By contrast, Ambrose is the closer at Watkins Glen. He's only led 10% of the possible laps, an extremely low number when considering he's never finished outside of the top five. His average start may have something to do with that, as Marcos has averaged a starting spot of 13.2 over his five races. His average position change of 11.2 (yes, he's averaged a finish of 2.0) is far and away the best of anyone starting this week. So when the green flag drops, ESPN will likely keep the camera on the Tasmanian Devil as no one passes as many cars as him.
In the, “Maybe we shouldn't dig such a deep hole,” category, don't go to sleep on Ron Fellows and Paul Menard. Both have completed nine races at the Glen and both have averaged a starting spot right around 30th place. Yet they are also near the top of the charts in positional improvement (6.3 and 6.4 respectively) to finish a red-hot... 23rd. We talk weekly about how important track position in but rarely is a starting position so important as it is on a road course. If either Fellows or Menard could manage a fast qualifying lap they might actually be a threat to win.
Watkins Glen Isn't Johnson's Best Track
Keselowski Is Fast in NY
For every riser, of course, there is a faller. And if you're not a JJ fan, Watkins Glen is the track for you. Jimmie knows how to turn in a single fast lap, averaging a qualifying spot of 5.6 over the last decade (including one pole start). However, Johnson has never won at the track and led a paltry 1.31% of the laps run. His average finish of 12.9 includes four top five finishes. Johnson spent time road course testing and the team overall has tested at various road courses over the years. The light bulb still hasn't clicked on for those right hand turns. Is 2013 the year Jimmie finally breaks through?
Another driver primed for a breakthrough is defending series champion Brad Keselowski. He's only competed in three events at the NY track but he's done well. He's scored a top five finish in two of the three races and led over 14% of the possible laps run. Like Ambrose, he's done it while not starting up front. His average finish of 8th is the highest of anyone outside of Stewart and Ambrose over the past decade. Just as important, Keselowski and the Blue Deuce team are known for getting every last drop of fuel out of their engines. He currently stands in 12th place, a paltry seven points out of tenth and with Stewart out Brad will pass him in the standings. The only question is whether or not the team can score a victory and give themselves an inside shot at the Chase.
Junior Might Well Need A Mulligan
Finally, a number of drivers with Chase hopes have struggled at Watkins Glen over the past ten years. Kasey Kahne has two wins after last week's race at Pocono but remains only 13 points ahead of tenth place. A poor run this week won't knock him out of the Chase thanks to the wild card. But falling below tenth will cost him the bonus points those wins would otherwise provide once the Chase begins. Kahne has never finished in the top ten at the track and his average finish of 18.4 is likely keeping Kenny Francis up nights.
At least he'll have company at the Hendrick Motorsports shop. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s average finish over the last ten years is even worse at 20.8, over four spots per race lower than his average start during the same period. Oddly enough, while his average finish is poor, Earnhardt has managed to score points on occasion. He has two top fives and three top tens. Given his inability to move forward, we should have a pretty good idea after qualifying which type of weekend this will be for Junior Nation.
Junior's 2009 Wreck is a Typical Effort Here
Max Papis Will Drive the #14
But neither of those two drivers will be sweating the most. Greg Biffle currently occupies the last transfer spot based on points, sitting tenth. With so many other teams within one race of them in points, the #16 team has absolutely no margin for error right now. Yet among Chase contenders, the Biff ranks dead last with an average finish of 23.8 over the last ten years. That average finish is a full nine spots below his average start of 14.8. What makes that average finish even more alarming is that Biffle has a top five and three top tens during the same period. If he struggles again this weekend, Biffle could drop well out of the top ten and behind other race winners in the wild card Chase.
With Stewart out and Max Papis in, though, it's still Marcos Ambrose and then everyone else. Should Ambrose be on his A game once again (he's never finished outside the top five as a Sprint Cup driver at Watkins Glen), every indication is that the #9 Ford will be the car to beat. It's a race that both the team and the manufacturer have circled on their calendar for good reason. Will he get the W once again? Or will someone else pull a New York surprise on the year's last road course race? The numbers are very much in Ambrose's favor.