There are only five races left in the MENCS regular season. The action on the track always heats up at the series heads into the month of August. Drivers who are on the playoff bubble will likely continue to play it safe and score as many Stage points and finishing points as possible. Drivers on the outside, looking in at the playoffs will likely is fuel strategy to try and steal a win. Drivers who are already locked into the playoffs have one thing on their mind… Win the race! It should be fun to see how it all plays out. The Go Bowling at the Glen can be seen Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
Goodyear will bring a new tire to the track this week. Watkins Glen was repaved in 2016 and Goodyear wanted a more heat-resistant compound. Both the Xfinity and Cup Series will use the same tire so Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Ryan Preece should have a good idea of how the tire will wear over a long run since they are competing in both races. Teams will receive 3 sets of tires for the 2 practice sessions, 1 set for qualifying and 5 sets (one transferred from practice) for the race.
The cars will be back to 750 HP engines and the aero ducts will be removed. The cars will still have the 2” splitter and 8” spoiler but the cars will be a lot more like the cars that competed at Watkins Glen in the past. I expect the cars that have had success at this track before, will be up front Sunday.
* The MENCS will be back to the crazy inspection process. The cars will qualify Saturday and they will be inspected Sunday morning. All cars who fail the inspection Sunday morning will start from the back. Their official starting position will be from the back and they will be scored from the back in Fantasy NASCAR.
Chase Elliott: Good news and bad news for Elliott this week. The good news is that he won this race last year. The bad news is that Elliott is in the worst slump of his career. Elliott has a 26.4 average finishing position since the start of June. This could be the track where he turns it all around. Elliott has the third-best driver rating (110.6) and he led the most laps (61) since the track was repaved in 2016. Elliott just missed Matt Tifft in the morning practice. Elliott made some 5-lap runs and liked the balance of his car.
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson will have a new crew chief this week. Cliff Daniels helped Johnson win the 2016 MENCS Championship when he served as the race engineer. Now he will call the shots on top the pit box. The word in the garage is that this is a good move for the No. 48 team. Daniels has his work cut out for him this week. Johnson has a 33rd-place average finishing position at Watkins Glen since the track was repaved. Johnson told his team, “The corners are now good. We just need more drive off the corners.”
Alex Bowman: Bowman has only been “OK” on the road courses since he took over the No. 88 car. Bowman finished 14th at Watkins Glen last year and he finished 14th at Sonoma in June. Bowman did move up 8 places in the race last year so he did prove he could pass cars. Bowman made a lot of short runs and told his team, “The car is good. The driver needs some work. I just need to find my marks. It is completely different from what we had in the simulator.”
William Byron: Byron qualified 16th and finished 8th in his first start at Watkins Glen. I was told that Byron spent a lot of time in the simulator with Jeff Gordon over the last month, preparing for this race. Gordon helped Chase Elliott get to Victory Lane last year. Could he have the same success with Byron Sunday? Byron was quiet on the radio. Chad Knaus asked him how the car was and he said, “Pretty good. If you have some ideas you want to try, I am good with that. But overall it is not bad.”
Kyle Larson: Larson is much better at qualifying at the road courses then he is in the race. Larson has started his last 8 road course races in the top 5, including 5 starts from the front row. His average finishing position is 17.2 though. He did have his best career finish at Watkins Glen last year when he brought the No. 42 car home in 6th place. Larson posted fast laps in practice. He never had a problem getting speed from his cars in practice. Getting through traffic has been his problem. Larson slid off track twice in final practice.
Kurt Busch: Busch is one of the safest picks in the field this week. Busch has been a top-10 machine at Watkins Glen. He has finished every race since 2012 at the Glen in the top 11. He has a 7.1 average finishing position at the track in the last 6 races. Busch was fighting a tight racecar in final practice. He said, “This car is evil when I try to turn to the left.” He was only 26th fastest on the long run.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick is much better at Sonoma than he is at Watkins Glen. He has not finished inside the top 10 in up-state New York since 2015. Harvick also has not led any laps and only scored 3 Stage points since the track was repaved in 2016. Harvick was fighting wheel-hop in the morning practice. He was 18th on the speed chart at the time. The team spent a lot of time working on getting the rear wheels into the track.
Clint Bowyer: Watkins Glen ranks as the 4th best track for Bowyer. He has never won in up-state New York, but he consistently finishes in the top 10. Bowyer is on the playoff bubble so the No. 14 team will use pit strategy to score a lot of Stage points and try to finish in the top 10. Bowyer has the road course skills to get the job done. Bowyer made some long runs and his car was only 14th fastest. He was worried about using too much brakes.
Daniel Suarez: Suarez finished 3rd at Watkins Glen in 2017 and 4th last year. Suarez grew up racing on the road courses and his skills have translated into success in the Cup Series. Suarez is another driver who needs points so I expect the No. 41 team to use pit strategy to score a lot of Stage points and finish up front this week. Saurez made some long runs and he said, “It will not rotate through the carousel at all.” He lost control of the car and went through the grass in practice.
Aric Almirola: Just like his teammate Kevin Harvick, Almirola is much better at Sonoma then he is at Watkins Glen. Almirola has never finished in the top 15 at this track. Last year was his first trip to Watkins Glen in a Stewart-Haas Racing car. He qualified 7th and finished 22nd. I heard he worked with Bowyer to improve his rhythm at the track.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski used to be the most consistent driver at Watkins Glen and then they repaved the track. Keselowski finished runner-up 3 times between 2011 and 2014. He finished 3rd, 15th and 17th since they repaved the track. Keselowski did not look very good at Sonoma this year either. The No. 2 car qualified 22nd and finished 18th. Keselowski made some 5-lap runs and crew chief Paul Wolfe told Brad, “We are right next to the No. 19 car on the speed charts, so that is not bad.” Brad responded, “I think we have a good piece to work with.”
Joey Logano: Watkins Glen ranks as the worst track for Logano. He did win in 2015 and finished 2nd in 2016, but his driver rating is 43.3 and his average finishing position is 16.3. Last year he qualified 6th, spent a lot of time in the sand and finished 37th. I did not receive any info for the No. 22 car but his lap speeds were outside the top 20.
Ryan Blaney: Blaney could be a good sleeper pick this week. He will compete in the Xfinity Series race Saturday and extra track time never hurts. Blaney won the Road Course race at Charlotte last year and backed it up with a 3rd-place finish at Sonoma this season. Blaney finished 8th at Watkins Glen in 2017 and 12th last year. He has the skills to run well at this track. Blaney looked fast in practice. His crew chief told him, “You are running the most consistent laps on the track.”
Paul Menard: Menard has quite the streak going on road courses. He has not finished inside the top 10 at a road course track since the 2014 race at Sonoma (12 races ago). It was his only top-10 finish in his 28 road course races. The odds of Menard finish in the top 10 this week are slim and none. Menard ran laps that were between 17th and 22nd fastest in practice. That is about where he should finish.
Kyle Busch: Busch will get some extra track time this week since he is competing in the Xfinity Series race. He usually runs well after he has a practice race on Saturday. Busch has the second-best driver rating (119.1), led the second-most laps 56 and scored 20 Stage points in the last 2 races at Watkins Glen. The No. 18 car looked good in practice. Busch told Adam Stevens, “I found something in the Xfinity Series cars on the exit of the Carousel. I tried it today and I need to be a tick freer to get it to work.” The team made changes and Busch went to No. 1 on the speed chart.
Erik Jones: Jones has two races at Watkins Glen on his resume and his average finishing position is 7.5. Not too bad. Jones started deep in the field (32nd) at Sonoma earlier this year and he was able to finish 8th. Jones needs points to stay in the playoff race, so I expect the No. 20 team to use pit strategy to score a lot of Stage points and finish in the top 10 Sunday. Jones unloaded in morning practice and said, “This car will not turn at all.” The team put the setup from the No. 18 car and Jones said, “It feels like a completely different car. Much better.”
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is on a hot streak right now. He nearly beat Kevin Harvick for the win at New Hampshire and he went to Victory Lane last week at Pocono. Now he competes at a track where he won at in 2016. Since the repave, Hamlin has a 6th place average finishing position at Watkins Glen. The No. 11 team was working on their long-run speed in practice. He said, “Balance is good. A little free through the carousel but not bad. It feels as fast on lap 7 as it does on lap 1.”
Martin Truex Jr.: Truex has been the best road course driver in the MENCS and it is not even close. In the last five road course races, Truex finished 1st, 14th, 2nd, 1st and 1st. The only finish outside the top 2 was at the Charlotte Roval last year when he was running 2nd and spun out by Jimmie Johnson on the last lap. Truex is also good at scoring Stage points. He finished 1st, 2nd, 2nd and 5th in the last two races at Watkins Glen. Truex liked his car. He said, “The balance is good. Just need to dial in more speed.” He was P2 on the speed chart at the time.
Matt DiBenedetto: DiBenedetto has not had a lot of success on the road courses but he has not been in very good cars. He has one race on a road course in a Joe Gibbs Racing powered car and he finished 4th. DiBenedetto was greatat Sonoma in June. He qualified 19th, drove through the field and finished 4th. It was quite impressive. DiBenedetto had a tire go down in the morning practice. He said, “Not sure if I ran over something or overcooked the beeds (Meaning he was using too much brake).”
Daniel Hemric: Hemric only has 2 races in the MENCS on the road courses. He finished 23rd last year at the Charlotte Roval and 15th this season at Sonoma. He has 2 races in the Xfinity Series at Watkins Glen on his resume. Hemric finished 11th in 2017 and 16th last year. Hemric was happy with his car. He said, “The right turns are prefect but need to be a little freer to turn it through the lefts.”
Austin Dillon: Dillon has looked like a fish out of water on the road courses. A lot of flopping around and wishing he was somewhere else. Dillon has competed in 12 road course races in the Cup Series and he has never finished in the top 15. His average finishing position in his 5 races at Watkins Glen is 27.2. Dillon was not fast in practice. He said the car felt pretty good. The responded, “Well bud, you are only 25th on the speed chart.”
Ty Dillon: Ty Dillon is only slightly better than his brother at road course racing. He has 6 career races in the MENCS on the road courses and his average finishing position is 25.33. He only has one finish in the top 20. It occurred last year when he qualified 24th and finished 19th at Watkins Glen. Ty made some 5-lpa runs and said, “The car is fine. I just need to figure out the breaking zones.”
Ryan Preece: Preece will be making his first start in the MENCS at Watkins Glen Sunday. He does have 2 races at the track on his Xfinity Series resume. Preece finished 27th in 2016 (suspension problems) and 4th last year. Preece will also have some extra seat time since he is competing in the Xfinity Series race. JTG Daugherty Racing learned a lot about setting up their cars for road courses from the input they received from AJ Allmendinger. The No. 47 car could be a sleeper pick in DFS this week.
Chris Buescher: Buescher learned a lot from AJ Allmendinger about road course racing. He was horrible at these tracks until the two drivers were teamed up. Buescher has a 15.2 average finishing position in his last 5 road course races. He will be a good cheap option in DFS this week. The team asked Buescher how his car was after a 5-lap run. He said, “Bad fast would be one way to explain it.” He was P6 at the time.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse is starting to show “slight” improvement on the road course. He used to be a driver who always finished between 20th – 25th. Now he is a driver who finishes between 16th – 20th. Do not get too excited about the No. 17 car unless they qualify deep in the field and have a chance to score place differential points in DFS. Stenhouse made some long runs and said, “If I could quite over driving the esses and the carousel, it would not be too bad.”
Ryan Newman: Talk about Global Warming… Newman has had a blistering hot summer. He has finished 5 of the last 7 races in the top 10. His success will likely come to an end Sunday. Newman has not finished in the top 10 at Watkins Glen since 2006. Yeah, Chase Elliott was only 11 years old at the time. Maybe a switch to Roush-Fenway Racing will help him this week. Newman made some short runs and told his team, “I can manhandle it through the turns if I had too but that is going to make for a long race tomorrow.”
Michael McDowell: McDowell spent a lot of his racing career driving the NASCAR Rolex Grand-Am Sports Cars on the road courses. That experience has led to success in the Cup Series on the road courses. McDowell has a 16.8 average finishing position in the seven road course races. He has not finished outside the top 20 at Watkins Glen since 2014. McDowell was “lacking lateral grip”… meaning when he hit the gas out of the corners the tires just spun.
Favorites to win Sunday: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Brad Keselowski
Good Sleeper Picks: William Byron, Ryan Blaney, Erik Jones, Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson, Matt DiBenedetto and Michael McDowell
MENCS Final Practice Speeds
Final Practice 5-Lap Average Speed
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