The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series is back in action this weekend for the second road course event of the season. Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/MRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) is always a doozy. Last year, Chase Elliott earned his first career Cup Series victory at Watkins Glen in a thrilling ending.
Will we see another strong finish this weekend?
Joe Gibbs Racing The Favorites
For the second time of the season, Joe Gibbs Racing finished 1-2-3 last weekend in Pocono. They also did so in the season opening Daytona 500 as well. Denny Hamlin triumphed in both events as the organization is looking for their 12th victory of the season on Sunday.
Furthermore, they also went 1-2 in the only other road course race on the season back in June at the Sonoma Raceway. JGR has also won this race in two of the last three years too.
Hamlin won in 2016 and was fourth a year later. He enters this weekend on a hot streak with a top five finish in each of the last three weeks including a runner-up and first place run the last two races on the year. Furthermore, if you go back six weeks, Hamlin has four top five finishes in his No. 11 Toyota.
If it’s not Hamlin winning, then look no further than Martin Truex Jr. He brought his No. 19 Toyota home third last weekend on the Tricky Triangle for his fifth top 10 finish in the last seven races on the year. Truex, also has two straight top two finishes at Watkins Glen including a win in 2017. He also has six top 10 finishes in his last eight tries there overall and won the race in Sonoma earlier this season.
Erik Jones should be strong too. He finished 10th in 2017 and fifth last year. If he gains another five spots he will win on Sunday. Jones, has three consecutive top three finishes in his No. 20 Toyota on the season and four top seven results in his last five races too. Heading into the Kentucky, he was 13 points behind the cutoff. Heading into Watkins Glen, he’s 39 points to the good.
How dare we not mention Kyle Busch? It’s goes to show you how good that they’ve been lately when he’s listed as fourth. Busch, has a series tying four wins in 2019. He has one top five in his last five races though. But, Busch has four straight top seven finishes at Watkins Glen including 12 top 10 finishes in his last 13 tries.
Last year, Toyota went 2-3-4-5, they can easily go 1-2-3-4 on Sunday.
Penske Has Struggled As Of Late
Logano, won this race in 2015 and was second in 2016 but was only 24th and 37th respectively the last two years.
Keselowski, had five top seven finishes in a seven year span between 2011 and 2016 including three runner-ups and a third place effort, but was only 15th and 17th respectively since.
Blaney, was eighth in 2017 but 12th last year.
I wouldn’t count on them finding their mojo this weekend.
Playoff Battle Getting Clearer
We’re down to five races left in the Cup Series regular season. Currently, nine drivers have guaranteed spots into the postseason via race wins. Seven more drivers hold down wildcard spots with at least two wildcard slots being available for the 10 race postseason.
But, among the drivers to have not won yet, who is sitting pretty and who’s not?
Aric Almirola is only 94 points to the good and the top wildcard driver because he rarely has bad finishes. Almirola, has 10 top 10 finishes in 2019 but six of those came in the first seven races of the year. Out of the last 14 races, he’s brought his No. 10 Ford inside of the op 10 just four times. Despite that, his worst finish in that time frame is 17th as he’s a top 15 machine. While he hasn’t scored a top five in the last 18 races, if he can just keep getting top 15’s he should have more than enough points banked to make the playoffs.
Blaney, is +79 and trending in the right direction. He has five top 10 finishes in his last seven starts on the year including three in the top six in his No. 12 Ford. He had just four top 10 finishes in the first 14 events of the year. I think it’s only a matter of time before he passed Almirola as the top wildcard driver.
William Byron is +62 and looking good too. The Hendrick Motorsports driver has emerged a lot like Blaney lately. Byron, has three top eight finishes in his last five starts on the season and looks like a contender in his No. 24 Chevrolet. I too think he can catch Almirola to move into the second wildcard position.
Another hot driver is Erik Jones. He has three consecutive top three finishes in his No. 20 Toyota on the season and four top seven results in his last five races too. Heading into the Kentucky, he was 13 points behind the cutoff. Heading into Watkins Glen, he’s 39 points to the good. I like his direction.
Kyle Larson is starting to emerge too. He has four top 10 finishes in his last six starts on the year in his No. 42 Chevrolet including three of which being in the top five.
But, that’s where the line for me stops. Clint Bowyer (+12) and Ryan Newman (+12) hold the final two spots. Jimmie Johnson (-12), Daniel Suarez (-31), Paul Menard (-68) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-88) are all four battling for the final two spots.
Menard and Stenhouse aren’t showing any signs of being contenders to win and aren’t any where close to getting enough points to get into the playoffs on strength.
Johnson, has two top 10 finishes in his last eight starts on the year with the last three weeks being 30th, 30th and 15th respectively.
Suarez’ last six finishes are – 17th, 24th, 40th, 8th, 19th and 24th respectively. With the way that they are trending, I don’t know if they can make the playoffs without winning. But, Suarez has never won a Cup race before and Johnson is riding an 80 race winless streak now.
That means Bowyer and Newman are barely good enough but might get by. Bowyer, hasn’t had a top five finish in the last eight races and just has scored two top 10 finishes since the Coke 600.
Newman, is looking good though with five top 10 finishes in the last seven. How ironic is it that the two that got in a fist fight after the All-Star race are fighting for the final two spots in the playoffs?
Bowyer, Johnson and Suarez are sliding but one gets in.
Is Watkins Glen Suarez’ Last Shot?
The 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series started off much better for Daniel Suarez. He had four top 10 finishes in the first eight races to the year. But, he’s since been inconsistent and his future plans with Stewart-Haas Racing could hinder on if he makes the playoffs or not.
See, Joe Gibbs Racing cut ties with what I thought was too soon. He only had two years with the organization in the No. 19 Toyota. But, I get that they needed to keep Martin Truex Jr. in the Toyota family and Suarez was the weak link.
Now, he looks like the weak link with an organization that won 12 times in 2018. He’s the only SHR driver not in the playoffs and if he wants to be in, he likely needs to win.
Suarez, keeps sliding further and further behind the cutoff spot. He’s 31 points down now. But, this weekend’s race at Watkins Glen may be his best chance among the remaining five races to get in.
Suarez, has two top five finishes in two tries on the upstate New York road course. He was third in 2017 and fourth last year. He’s chasing a driver in Jimmie Johnson who has not scored a top five finish since 2012 in Watkins Glen. His last three finishes there are 40th, 29th and 30th respectively.
Ryan Newman is not much of a road course racer while Clint Bowyer has one top five in his last six Watkins Glen starts himself.
So, Suarez could make up some significant ground. I have a feeling though that making up ground is getting too far away. He needs to win. This is his best chance to do just that.
Next week it’s to Michigan to where Suarez has one top 10 finish in five career tries. That was a fourth place run back in June though. After that, it’s to Bristol where he has one top 10 in five tries an eighth place run in April. Then, it’s to Darlington where Suarez has finishes of 38th and 29th respectively. After that, it’s to Indy where he’s finished seventh and 18th respectively.
So, as you can see, the next three weeks are his best shots but Sunday is the best opportunity of the three to get it done.
Could Johnson Really Miss The Playoffs?
It’s looking more and more likely that Jimmie Johnson may miss out on the postseason this year. For a seven time Cup Series champion – that’s insane to think about. But, Johnson is currently in the midst of a three week string of finishes of 30th, 30th and 15th respectively heading into a track where he’s finished 40th, 29th and 30th respectively in his last three starts at the Watkins Glen International.
Currently, he’s 12 points behind the final bubble spot. If Daniel Suarez happens to win on Sunday, he can too with two top four finishes in as many tries in Watkins Glen, then Johnson falls even further back.
After Watkins Glen it’s to Michigan, a place where Johnson finished 15th in June and has just one top five finish at since 2012. Then, it’s to Bristol a spot that he can win out followed by Darlington and Indy, spots where he’s struggled at in the last few years too.
Johnson, likely needs to win to make it in. He hasn’t done so in 80 races. That speaks volumes.
Can Chase Elliott Get Going At Track He Won At Last Year?
At one point of the season, Chase Elliott looked like a championship contender. He won at Talladega back in April to kick off a five race string of a top five finish in each race. Unfortunately, his good finishes stopped then.
Since Michigan, Elliott has one top 15 finish in seven tries. Those last seven finishes are – 20th, 37th, 11th, 35th, 15th, 29th and 38th respectively. He heads to Watkins Glen as the defending race winner but also coming off of a practice crash last weekend in Pocono and a crash in the race itself en route to a last place finish.
He needs to end this spiral and Watkins Glen could be the place.
Chip Ganassi Racing Could Have Big Day
The Chip Ganassi Racing Indy Car team went 1-2 last weekend in Mid-Ohio. Can they go 1-2 on another road course in a different series? I think so.
Kyle Larson enters Sunday’s race with four top 10 finishes in his last six starts on the season including three of which being top five results in his No. 42 Chevrolet. He finished sixth in this race last year and had a strong car at Sonoma back in June but went for stage points instead of a win. He can win on Sunday though in Watkins Glen.
So can Kurt Busch. While he did win at Kentucky a few weeks ago he’s in a bit of a slump too. Busch, has finished 10th or worse in five of his last six starts on the season in his No. 1 Chevrolet. But, Watkins Glen in a strong track for him. He has five top 10 finishes in his last six tries.
This could be a strong week for them.