NASCAR is on the road course again this weekend, as the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series compete at Watkins Glen International.
Sprint Cup Series
Cheez-It 355 at the Glen - Watkins Glen International - Watkins Glen, New York
With five races remaining in the Sprint Cup Series regular season, Marcos Ambrose's best shot of winning and earning a spot in the championship Chase will be this weekend's event at Watkins Glen International.
Watkins Glen is the second and final road-course race of the season in the series. The first road-course event in 2014 took place on June 22 at Sonoma Raceway, where Carl Edwards took the checkered flag. Ambrose led five laps at Sonoma before Edwards grabbed the top spot from him with 26 laps remaining. Ambrose ended up finishing eighth there.
Ambrose, who is considered as one of the best road-course racers in the series, is a heavy favorite to win Sunday's 90-lap, 220.5-mile race at Watkins Glen. The 37-year-old Australian has won two Sprint Cup races during his career, and both of his victories occurred at this 2.45-mile, 7-turn road course in Upstate New York from 2011-12.
While attempting to win at Watkins Glen for a third consecutive year in 2013, Ambrose started on the pole and dominated most of the race by leading 51 laps. Just prior to a late-race caution, Kyle Busch had pitted from the second position, while Ambrose continued on the track as the leader. The caution benefited Busch, as he took the lead when Ambrose made his last stop.
Ambrose had fallen to 13th and was never a factor from there. With six laps to go, he was involved in an accident with Max Papis, who substituted for the injured Tony Stewart, and Brian Vickers. While Busch went on to victory, Ambrose wound up finishing 31st.
Right now, Ambrose is 17th in the point standings and 20th on NASCAR's "Chase Grid." He is 49 points behind Greg Biffle, who holds the 16th and final provisional spot in the Chase.
"It's an important weekend, no doubt," Ambrose said on Friday at Watkins Glen. "We're excited. We had a good test up here last week and felt like the car was a repeat of last year, and we had a fast car last year too."
Ambrose, who's in his fourth season with Richard Petty Motorsports, is hoping to become the 12th different driver to win a race this season. One month ago, his teammate, Aric Almirola, won the rain-shortened race at Daytona International Speedway, which virtually guaranteed himself a spot in the 16- member Chase field. RPM has never had both of its teams in the Chase.
"RPM would love to have both cars in the Chase, and that's what we're going to try to do this weekend," Ambrose said.
Ambrose is doing double duty at Watkins Glen this weekend. He is scheduled to drive the No. 09 Ford for RPM in Saturday's 200-mile Nationwide Series race here. Ambrose won three straight Nationwide events at this track from 2008-10.
Will competing in the Nationwide event help Ambrose in any way for the Sprint Cup race at Watkins Glen?
"It is nice to get the cobwebs out early and get on the track early and get after it," he said. "It is good for me to get a few more laps on the track. There isn't much you can carry over though. It is a different set of rules. It is the same tire, so tire pressure maybe. Even the brakes are different because you aren't going as fast to need to slow down as much. There is very little to cross over, but it is fun to have a second race here. I have won three Nationwide races here in a row, and I am going to try to make it four."
After Watkins Glen, the series moves on to Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 17) and then Bristol Motor Speedway (Aug. 23) and Atlanta Motor Speedway (Aug. 31) before the 26-race regular season concludes at Richmond International Raceway (Sept. 6).
Even if Ambrose doesn't get a victory at Watkins Glen, he feels pretty good about his chances of winning at Bristol, a half-mile short track where he has done well in the past.
"Our racing form on intermediate and downforce tracks hasn't been that great," he said. "It is going to be a struggle at Michigan, but Bristol certainly is on the radar. We have finished top-five there, and Aric came very close to winning it. I think that is a good track for us."
Forty-three teams are on the entry list for the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.
Zippo 200 at the Glen - Watkins Glen International - Watkins Glen, New York
The Nationwide Series will run its second of three road-course races this season on Saturday at Watkins Glen International.
Brendan Gaughan won the first road-course event of the season on June 21 at Road America in Wisconsin. The series will compete at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course next week.
Heading into the 200-mile race at Watkins Glen, JR Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott and Regan Smith are 1-2, respectively, in the Nationwide point standings. Elliott, a rookie in the series this season, holds just a two-point advantage over Smith. Elliott Sadler from Joe Gibbs Racing and Ty Dillon from Richard Childress Racing are both 12 points behind the leader.
Elliott has three Nationwide wins this season, which is the most among series- regulars. Sprint Cup regulars Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski have three Nationwide victories in 2014 as well.
This will be the first time Elliott competes at Watkins Glen. He finished fourth at Road America.
"I've heard nothing but amazing things about the track [Watkins Glen] and have always wanted to race on it," Elliott said. "This weekend, I'll have my shot. I plan on shifting gears better than I did at Road America and putting my team in a position late in the race. We are ready to rebound from back-to-back disappointing weekends [finished 12th at Indianapolis and eighth at Iowa]."
Smith's hometown of Cato, New York is located roughly 80 miles northeast of this racetrack. His crew chief, Ryan Pemberton, hails from Albany, New York. Smith has three Nationwide starts at Watkins Glen, with his best finish of fourth occurring in last year's race.
"I always look forward to heading back home and doing some road racing," Smith said. "I haven't lived in New York since I was kid, but it's still a trip I get excited about. We had a strong run at the Glen last year, and we were solid at Road America earlier this summer [13th-place finish]."
Sadler has finished 12th or better in the last three Nationwide races at Watkins Glen, including a fifth-place run here in 2013. Dillon, also a rookie in the series this season, will be competing at this track for the first time.
Thirty-nine teams are on the entry list for the Zippo 200 at the Glen. Marcos Ambrose, Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Paul Menard, Josh Wise, Busch and Keselowski are those Sprint Cup regulars competing in this race. Keselowski won here last year.