With only five regular-season races remaining, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to Watkins Glen International this weekend. Only seven drivers are locked into the Playoffs with wins. Kevin Harvick has six victories followed by Kyle Busch with five, Martin Truex Jr. with four and Clint Bowyer with two. Joey Logano, Erik Jones and Austin Dillon have each visited victory lane once this season.
That leaves nine spots available as the top 16 will move on to compete for the championship when the Playoffs begin. While several drivers will advance based on points, time is running out for everyone else. At this point, a win is the only guarantee. Here’s a look at seven drivers who are vying for those last few coveted positions.
Drivers on the bubble include Hendrick Motorsports teammates Chase Elliott who is 129 points above the cutoff and Jimmie Johnson who is 15th in the Playoff standings with 107 points to spare. Alex Bowman is in the final Playoff spot (+56).
Elliott had his career-best road course finish this past June at Sonoma and has momentum on his side after scoring a fifth at Loudon and a seventh last weekend at Pocono.
“In the last couple of years, I feel like we’ve run better at Watkins Glen,” Elliott said. “We had a good run at Sonoma earlier this season, so hopefully we learned some things that we can do this weekend. I’ve never really had the results to show (at Watkins Glen), but we usually always have had some speed and pace.”
He may have a little extra motivation for that elusive first win when he hits the track at Watkins Glen. His father, Bill Elliott, earned his first career victory at a road course, Riverside International Raceway, on Nov. 20, 1983.
Johnson has never won at Watkins Glen but he has earned four top-five finishes, eight top-10s and one pole. He’s hoping to end the drought this weekend and grab his first checkered flag of the season.
“I took to the Watkins Glen track pretty quickly in the then-Busch Series days and in the Cup Series, I’ve been a top-three car at times and we have had a few top-fives,” he said. So, I hope to find that little bit extra to hold on with the long-run speed. I seem to be able to be competitive on the short runs so I need to take care of my brakes for the long runs.”
Bowman has had only two Cup Series starts at Watkins Glen with a best finish of 29th but he brought home a ninth place finish in June at Sonoma Raceway.
“The tracks are pretty different, but it definitely gives me some road-course confidence at least at being good at Watkins Glen,” he said. “I think Watkins Glen is probably a little easier than Sonoma is from a driver’s standpoint. Excited to get there and be in a really fast car. I know our road course stuff is really strong, so it should be fun.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is in 17th place, 56 points outside Playoff contention. In five starts at the track, he only has an average finish of 26th so it’s unlikely the Roush Fenway Racing driver will make any significant gains this weekend.
“Last year we struggled with our brakes so we have made some changes to our braking package this year,” he said. “Pit strategy usually becomes a factor. Last year it came down to fuel mileage. If we can stay out of trouble and keep our Ford on track, I’m confident that we can have a solid finish this weekend.”
Paul Menard is also 56 points outside the cutoff for the Playoffs. He made his Cup Series debut at the track in 2003 and this weekend will mark his 15th start at the Glen. With an average finish of 22.4, the Wood Brothers team will have an uphill battle.
“The Fords overall have been strong, and the No. 21, with the alliance with Team Penske, has historically been fast,” he said. “We should have a good baseline to start from, and I’m anxious to see how the car drives.”
Ryan Newman is currently 88 points outside the cutoff. In 16 starts at Watkins Glen, the Richard Childress Racing driver has captured one top five and three top 10s with an average finish of 17.8. He discussed the challenges of racing at this unique track and how it compares to Sonoma Raceway.
“Watkins Glen is definitely the faster of the two road courses,” he said, “so the speed there is definitely up compared to what we felt at Sonoma Raceway. The speed is the biggest adjustment we have to make. I think for our trip this time, it’s all about getting adjusted to the new asphalt, the new grip level and the new tire combination.”
“We really don’t know how racy the track is going to be,” Newman continued. “Usually new asphalt lends itself to a single groove, so it’s been a while since we’ve been to a road course that’s been repaved. The tire and asphalt combination and how well we can race will dictate our strategy, our pit strategy and what we are planning to do when we race the last lap.”
Daniel Suarez sits 96 points below the cutoff but he enters the completion at Watkins Glen with momentum after his first career pole and a career-best finish of second at Pocono Raceway. In his only Cup Series start at the track last year, he finished third.
After his runner-up finish last weekend, Suarez spoke about his confidence going forward.
“Yeah, actually I was just talking about that,” he said, “how good is this result for our race team and for everyone in the No. 19 group because we know how good we run in The Glen, and we had a good result my first time there in the Cup car. We are not expecting anything less. We have good momentum right now on our side, and hopefully, we can keep that going.”
As the regular season winds down, the completion will increase as the drivers battle for the ultimate prize, a victory that will catapult them into the Playoffs. Tune into NBC on Sunday at 3 p.m. as the action continues.
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