The official name of this race is the ‘Heluva Good! Sour Cream Dips at the Glen’ so we’ve opted for the more succinct title above. This is the second and final road course event for the 2011 season and will be held at Watkins Glen International in upstate New York. This race is even more significant since the NASCAR ‘regular season’ schedule is winding down with only five events remaining (including this week) before the ‘Chase’ begins.
We talked a lot about the general nature of road course racing before the event at Sonoma earlier this year and they bear repeating again. This is stock car racing’s version of ‘comic relief’, the road course race. For two weeks every year NASCAR can’t be called the ‘left turn only’ circuit as they subject their drivers to the twists and turns and up and downshifting mayhem at California’s Infineon Raceway (which I’ll forever refer to as ‘Sonoma’) and New York’s Watkins Glen. There’s no middle ground in terms of opinion about the road courses races with drivers, teams or fans. Some people hate them and think they should be done away with. Others like it and would like to see more road racing on the NASCAR schedule. That dichotomy is also important for handicapping the race—some teams can’t set up a car for a road course if their life depended on it. Likewise, some drivers are so inept on the twists and turns that they’re replaced for these races by a ‘road course specialist’ (more about that in a moment). Other drivers are awesome on road courses—not surprisingly, most have a background in open wheel racing where they’re more common—and as a result their teams put a priority on getting the setup for these races right.
And now, a few words about road course specialists: some NASCAR drivers that are otherwise serviceable competitors on ovals flat out suck on road courses. Rather than put them in a position where they’re definitely going to struggle, some teams bring in drivers who are good at it for those races. It doesn’t happen as much as it used to and teams that are contending for ‘The Chase’ can’t really do it since they sacrifice points for their primary driver. Teams that aren’t in contention, however, have a vested interest in a good finish since they can boost their owners point totals. The top 35 teams in owners points are guaranteed a qualifying spot for future races. It’s also a good way for a struggling team to make some money for a good finish and a front of the pack finish never hurts in getting sponsors on board. For example, the relatively small Phoenix Racing team will run road course specialist and Frank Zappa lookalike Boris Said in the #51 car at both Infineon and Watkins Glen. Another driver who usually gets a ride—and particularly at Watkins Glen—is Canadian Ron Fellows. Fellows is on the official entry list for this week, driving the #36 Golden Corral Chevy for Tommy Baldwin Racing. At one point, the road course specialists were intriguing from a betting perspective but at this point it’s hard to have much interest in them for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that there are so many NASCAR regulars that are good on road courses.
Among NASCAR ‘regulars’ the best road course drivers are Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart. Since 1997 there have been 29fd Sprint Cup races held on road courses and 16 of them have been won by either Gordon or Stewart. Gordon is generally better at Sonoma while Stewart has dominated at Watkins Glen. Stewart has 12 career starts here with 5 wins, only 2 races out of the top ten and an average finish of 5.42. That’s the second best average finish among active drivers at this track behind only Marcos Ambrose who has posted 3 top five finishes in three career races.
This race is significant to Stewart for another reason—as our friends at iFantasyRace (www.ifantasyrace.com) point out a victory here would essentially clinch a berth in the ‘Chase’ for the #14 Office Depot team. They also note another impressive metric of Stewart’s dominance here—since 2004 Stewart has either finished first or second at Watkins Glen every year with the exception of one (2010). Despite this stellar resume, Stewart was only a +700 second choice in the opening odds from the Las Vegas Hilton Superbook. The aforementioned Marcos Ambrose was favored at +350 with the defending champion in this race, Juan Pablo Montoya, also priced at +700.
In theory, qualifying is extremely important at both NASCAR road courses. In 48 combined races run at Watkins Glen and Infineon only 14 winners started out of the top ten—the most recent being Kurt Busch who won from the #11 spot earlier this year at Sonoma. Only four winners started further back than 13th. At Watkins Glen only 3 of the last 10 races and 5 of the last 20 have been won from outside the top ten. The deepest in the field a winner at Watkins Glen has ever started from is 18th (Steve Park in 2000) and only one other driver has every won from further back than 13th. only 5 of 22 winners have started outside of the top ten, with only 2 starting further back than 13th. Juan Pablo Montoya won from the #3 starting position With the exception of the top tier road course drivers (Jeff Gordon, Stewart, Montoya and Ambrose) we wouldn’t’ consider backing a driver starting out of the top ten and even for those experts at this type of racing its a challenge to make up track position.
The small group of dominant road course drivers also makes it even more difficult to get good prices on the top competitors than it is during a typical week. We may find ourselves in a position where we have to pick one of the top group and either allocate our entire ‘to win’ wager on him. At this point, it’s hard to look past Tony Stewart given the importance of this race to his championship aspirations and his history of strong performances here.
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