Weekend Preview: Watkins Glen International

NASCAR Cup Series street circuit racing consistently features some of the most demanding and high-risk competition of the season.

This week’s Go Bowling at The Glen (3:00 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) includes all of that plus the added pressure to impact the picture of the 2023 playoffs with just two races left to finish the 16- Officially set driver field.

Finding an engaging storyline for this weekend won’t be a problem.

Current NASCAR Cup Series championship leader Joe Gibbs Racing driver Martin Truex Jr. arrives in upstate New York in second place with a 60-point lead over his JGR teammate Denny Hamlin. If he can take a point by Sunday’s checkered flag and maintain a 61-point lead over the field, the regular-season championship will be his — and the all-important 15-point bonus.

The 2017 series champion would have been the only two drivers, alongside Richard Childress Racing driver Kyle Busch (2018 and 2019), to have won multiple regular-season titles. Truex is one of eight past Watkins Glen winners in the field and clinched the trophy in 2017 en route to his season championship.

While the top of the overall standings could well be certain this weekend, things look very different for playoff rank 16. Front Row Motorsports driver Michael McDowell secured another automatic opportunity with his popular win last weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

With the trophy, McDowell becomes the 13th driver to secure a playoff spot with a win, alongside Truex, Hamlin, William Byron, Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ross Chastain, Ryan Blaney, Chris Buescher, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, Joey Logano and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

And this is where it gets super interesting. Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick, who is retiring at the end of this season, leads the points standings behind the race winners by 145 points in 16th place. Just below him is RFK Racing’s Brad Keselowski, 143 points clear. However, a new winner could certainly complicate their situation.

With two races to go, 16th place is the weakest. 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace holds a 28-point lead over Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez. Wallace, who is fighting for his first NASCAR Cup Series Playoff appearance, needs to up his game at the 2.45-mile Watkins Glen International. His four-start average is 27.8 and his best finish is 23rd in 2021. Wallace has never won on a NASCAR Cup Series street course.

Suarez, the driver of the #99 Trackhouse Racing Chevrolet, won at the Sonoma, California street course last year. He has three top five finishes in five starts at Watkins Glen and his average finish there is 12.0.

“We just have to keep doing what we’re doing,” Suarez said. “That means qualifying well, collecting stage points and getting a good result. There are still many races ahead of us and we know we can do it. When we have a car as good at Watkins Glen as we did at Indianapolis, we know we can win there. That also applies to Daytona.”

Close behind in the standings is rookie Ty Gibbs – 49 points behind Wallace. A win at Watkins Glen this week or at Daytona International Speedway in next week’s regular season finale would make Gibbs only the sixth rookie to earn a playoff spot.

The Driver of the #54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota – NASCAR Champion Gibbs, Busch, Chastain and Alex Bowman will put themselves ahead of the competition this weekend as they compete in Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

One of the biggest stories on the road to The Glen revolves around two-time race winner there, Hendrick Motorsports’ Chase Elliott. The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series Champion has valiantly worked his way up the standings after missing a total of six races — five of them through injury and a one-race NASCAR suspension. But Elliott, who is 80 points behind Wallace, will most likely need a win to secure his eighth straight NASCAR Cup Series Playoff appearance at this point.

The good news for the sport’s most popular rider is that not only is he doing well at Watkins Glen, but he also has the best average (5.667) in the field. Elliott clinched his first career road win in 2018 and the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet Hendrick Motorsports confirmed that the next year – one of only three active drivers (Larson and Busch) to claim multiple wins at Watkins Glen.

In six starts on the street course, Elliott has won two races, two pole positions and four top five finishes on the 2.54 mile course. His Hendrick teammate Larson is the two-time defending champion of the race, and a win on Sunday would make him only the third driver in history to win three times in a row at Watkins Glen – alongside NASCAR Hall of Famers Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon .

Practice takes place on Saturday, followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying at 12:30 p.m. ET on USA Network.

– The NASCAR Xfinity Series is still painting the picture of the playoffs with four races to go

NASCAR is fast approaching with the Shriner’s Childrens 200 at Watkins Glen (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Current points leader, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill, has an 11-point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek at Watkins Glen. One or the other has led the Championship every week of the season – and they’ve dueled head-to-head and swapped the lead for the past 15 weeks.

Hill finished 30th in his only previous start at Watkins Glen but has improved his road course record this season with top-10 finishes in five of the first six road races of 2023 – including a fourth place finish last week at Indianapolis. Nemechek only had two top 10 finishes on street courses this season, with his best finish of second place at the Chicago Street Race.

When it comes to street racing in the Xfinity Series, veteran Justin Allgaier and young JR Motorsports teammate Sam Mayer set the pace in 2023.

Allgaier had four top-five finishes on road courses this season, including a second place finish at Portland, Oregon, and from 11 starts at Watkins Glen, Allgaier finished in the top 10 seven times.

Mayer, 20, clinched his first Xfinity Series win of his career last month on a street course at his ‘home track’, Wisconsin’s Road America, and finished second at Indianapolis last weekend.

Eight riders have secured positions in the 12-rider playoff field with wins this season, including Hill, Nemechek, Allgaier, Cole Custer, Mayer, Chandler Smith, Sammy Smith and Jeb Burton. JRM’s Josh Berry is the top-scoring player without a trophy.

Hill’s teammate Sheldon Creed ranked twelfth and last in the points. He has a 17-point lead over Big Machine Racing’s Parker Kligerman – both respected road racers.

It’s a busy Saturday for the drivers. Practice is scheduled for Saturday at 10:30 a.m. ET, followed by qualifying at 11 a.m. – both streaming on the NBC Sports app. The race follows at 3:30 p.m. ET.

Qualifying at Watkins Glen was particularly important as the front row easily produced the most race winners (17 times in 28 races). A driver has won from pole position nine times, and the outside pole sitter has won seven times.

Larson is the reigning Xfinity Series race winner – winning NASCAR weekend in 2022.

– By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Specifically for field-level media

https://deadspin.com/weekend-preview-watkins-glen-international-1850748922 Weekend Preview: Watkins Glen International

Ian Walker

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