NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Go Bowling at the Glen (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN, MRN)

Can Elliott 3-Peat?

Out of the last eight road course races in the Cup Series, Chase Elliott has won six of them. Among those six, two of which are in Watkins Glen. Can he three-peat the race on Sunday?

The last driver to win three straight on the upstate New York road course was Jeff Gordon (1997-1999). Mark Martin is the only other driver to accomplish that feat as he did so in 1993, 1994 and 1995.

There’s no denying that Elliott is the best road course racer in the game right now including what should have been a win in the Daytona road course back in February, a win in COTA as well as Road America to go along with a runner-up in Sonoma. That comes after winning on the Daytona road course and the ROVAL last year. He won Watkins Glen and the ROVAL in Charlotte as the final two road course races in 2019 too.

Can he win again on Sunday?

He needs to get his season back going again and this could be the place to do so.


Who Can Beat Elliott?

Elliott is the favorite to win Sunday for good measure. But, if he doesn’t take the checkered flag first, who can beat him?

I’d start with Martin Truex Jr. He’s finished runner-up in each of the last two years at Watkins Glen to Elliott in fact. Also, Truex won in 2017 too.

Combined, Truex and Elliott have won 10 of the last 13 road course races between them. The only ones that they didn’t win are the ROVAL in Charlotte in 2018 in which Truex was leading on the final lap heading into the final turn but was crashed by Jimmie Johnson, the Daytona road course back in February in which Elliott dominated and was leading before a fluke rain caution and Sonoma to where Kyle Larson was just dominant. That’s it.

So, in terms of favorites, you have to look at these two.

You also can look at Denny Hamlin and Larson too.

Larson, dominated Sonoma and was runner-up at COTA. He has two straight top 10 finishes at Watkins Glen.

Hamlin, has three top four results in his last four Watkins Glen tries.

Don’t count out Kyle Busch either who’s a past multi time Watkins Glen winner to go along with four top seven results in his last five Watkins Glen tries.

That’s why the Elliott vs. the field question isn’t necessarily too far out of left field. Hendrick Motorsports, Elliott’s team he drives for, has won 7 of the last 8 overall road course races in general. Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win each of the last 9 road course races at that. Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR then, these three teams have won 12 of the last 13 road course races overall. The only one they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap or else it would be 13 straight.

That’s why this is completely relevant.

Stewart-Haas Racing is the only other team to have won since 2015 on road courses. Hendrick has won 8 times, JGR has won 4 times, Furniture Row, SHR and Penske each twice themselves. That’s 18 races.

Of the winners in this span, only Elliott (7 wins), Truex Jr. (3 wins) have won multiple times. Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart are the only other winners. Among them, Stewart has since retired and the others are currently inside of the playoff grid.


Can Penske Improve?

If you notice above, I’ve not yet really mentioned a Penske driver. That’s because they’ve struggled on this track as of late. Brad Keselowski has three runner-ups there but those came in his first four starts. Since, he’s finished 35th, 7th, 3rd, 15th, 17th and 9th respectively.

Joey Logano is a past winner of this race and started his Penske career at Watkins Glen with finishes of seventh, sixth, first and second respectively, but his three results since are 24th, 37th and 23rd.

That leaves Ryan Blaney who was 19th and 12th in 2016 and 2018 but eighth and fifth in 2017 and 2019. What about 2021…

They enter with some momentum and will start 1-2-3. All three also finished in the top 10 in Atlanta and a week later they turned that into all three being in the top five.


Rusty Or Rested?

With having two full weeks off, the Cup guys are back in action for a final stretch of 14 straight weeks of racing. Does having two weeks off allow you to be fully rested and ready to go for a championship push, or are you a little bit rusty?


Are The Playoffs Now Set?

I don’t think on Mothers Day in Darlington we’d ever thought it would come down to this. The 16 driver playoff grid in the NASCAR Cup Series would remain intact for the next six weeks after the May 9 event. In fact, once we got to June leaving Sonoma, we figured it was pretty much set.

Now, we’ve seen this thing get turned upside down two weeks in-a-row with two drivers that combined to win 16 times a year ago being winless after 22 races run.

Heading into Nashville back in June, Kurt Busch was 63 points down in 18th. Aric Almirola was 186 points arrears in 28th. As we now head to Watkins Glen, both are playoff bound.

Busch, won two races ago in Atlanta while Almirola won the race after in the Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. With four races left (Watkins Glen, Indianapolis, Michigan and Daytona), one has to think that we may be far from over in terms of new winners.

We’ve seen 13 different race winners in 22 races completed. With two road courses and Daytona looming, how many more do we end up getting?

We all thought both drivers were down and out heading into June. Busch at one point was 83 points back but here he’s now gotten hot. Almirola was -232 points entering Sunday’s race and now he’s in. This is exactly what NASCAR wanted when they created this format.

Last year, it seemed like shoo-in that Kevin Harvick or Denny Hamlin would win the championship. Harvick, won nine times. Hamlin seven. Neither did. In fact, Harvick didn’t even make the final round and Hamlin was even first or second in the end.

Now, we have a driver that was 27th in points, 232 markers out of the playoffs and now he’s in by winning the fifth to last race of the regular season. Almirola, had no top five finishes in the first 21 races run. He had just two top 10’s at that with 26 total laps led. Three of his first four finishes were 30th or worse. Six of the first eight were 20th or worse. In fact, by time we got to the 16th race of the year in Sonoma last month, he had 12 finishes outside the top 20 including six straight.


Michael McDowell won the Daytona 500 but has since earned eight finishes of 16th or worse in his last eight starts on the season and has also been 13th or worse in 11 of his last 12 overall. Seven of those were outside of the top 20.

These two are playoff bound and if anyone else 17th or worse now in the playoff standings wins, they can be too.

The thing is, it’s entirely possible for it to happen in Daytona. But prior to that, the race to stay off the 16th spot is going to be a race to watch. See, Austin Dillon was 105 points ahead of the cutline heading to Nashville. It bumped up to 108 heading to Pocono 1. Now, he’s five points out due to Busch and Almirola’s wins.

Dillon, entered Sunday’s race 104 points ahead of the cutline so via Almirola’s win, he lost 109 points in one day. His teammate Tyler Reddick is now on the bubble at +5 but he entered on the bubble at +96. He essentially gained on Dillon as he trailed him by eight points for 15th in points and leaves five ahead but also lost 91 points for the bubble spot though too.

Reddick though is outperforming Dillon in the sense that he has seven top 11 finishes in his last 10 tries. He’s also scored 41 stage points over the last five races. Dillon, has only accumulated four stage points with one top 10 in his last 10 tries.

Dillon, hit pit lane just as a caution for Ryan Newman and Quin Houff occurred so not only was he a lap down because of that, he also was penalized for pitting during a closed pit. He’d only finish 17th, one lap down as a result.

Reddick, scored stage points in both stages but came home 13th. Still, he’s the better of the two RCR cars now but the playoff bubble got all that more interesting as we can see a points battle for it.

Kevin Harvick isn’t guaranteed either. He may be +82 but if Denny Hamlin keeps the overall points lead — he’s 13 points ahead of Kyle Larson right now, and also doesn’t win a race either, then he takes another guaranteed spot which gives us 14 drivers in and two spots for the taking for wildcard drivers.

Harvick and Reddick hold those spots but what happens if we get two more winners over the final four races?

It boils down to Dillon, Chris Buescher, DiBenedetto, Ross Chastain, Bubba Wallace, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Ryan Preece, Erik Jones, Ryan Newman, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie or Anthony Alfredo and if at least one of them can win one of the final four races?

Well, half of those 14 drivers have never won a Cup race in their careers yet. Buescher and Cole Custer have just one win. Erik Jones hasn’t won in the last 69 races. Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t won since 2017.

Why would they magically win a race now?

Buescher, is back sliding with no stage points in the last seven races and no finish better than 16th in that span. He hasn’t won a race since 2016.

DiBenedetto has three straight top 11’s but prior to that was eight straight finishes of 18th or worse. He’s had six stage points since the Coca-Cola 600.

Chastain, has 20 stage points since the ‘600 and three finishes of 21st or worse in his last five tries.

Wallace, has had one top 10 all year.

Stenhouse Jr. has 12 finishes of 15th or worse in his last 15 starts on the season.

Suarez, has two 36th place finishes and a 20th place run in his last three races with also just one top 10 in the last nine races overall. He has six finishes of 15th or worse in his last nine races in general.

Then you get guys 23rd on points and further back with them struggling even more.

After that, you have to look at the tracks over the final four races. We go to Watkins Glen next to where Martin Truex Jr. has three straight top two results and Chase Elliott has won the last two races there. Elliott, has won two of the last three road course races on the season as well. Again, not an easy track for a driver to steal a victory.

The Indianapolis road course could potentially be with it being an inaugural event, but Elliott has won the last three first time road course races.

Hendrick Motorsports has won 7 of the last 8 overall road course races in general. Counting Joe Gibbs Racing, them and HMS have combined to win each of the last 9 road course races. Throw in Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.) who was aligned with JGR, these three teams have won 12 of the last 13 road course races. The only one they didn’t win was when Ryan Blaney (Team Penske) was victorious in 2018 on the Charlotte ROVAL when Truex was crashed in the final turn on the final lap or else it would be 13 straight.

Stewart-Haas Racing is the only other team to have won since 2015 on road courses. Hendrick has won 8 times, JGR has won 4 times, Furniture Row, SHR and Penske each twice themselves. That’s 18 races.

Of the winners in this span, only Elliott (7 wins), Truex Jr. (3 wins) have won multiple times. Christopher Bell, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart are the only other winners. Among them, Stewart has since retired and the others are currently inside of the playoff grid.


After the road course stretch the next two weeks is Michigan to where Harvick has three straight wins and five top twos in his last six tries. Hamlin has two runner-ups in his last three tries there. Kyle Busch has six straight top six finishes. Truex has four straight top fours. Kurt Busch has five top 10’s in his last six starts including two in the top three. Kyle Larson has three wins there with Ganassi and five top three’s in his last eight starts. Now, he’s with Hendrick. Imagine what he could do there with them. Elliott has nine top 10’s in 10 tries.

Can anyone steal a playoff berth against these guys in the Irish Hills? Not very likely.

That leaves it all up to Daytona for the cut race at the end of August. This is where things can get interesting. DiBenedetto, Stenhouse, Buescher, Chastian, Suarez and Dillon could all easily win the Coke Zero Sugar 400. With all but Dillon facing must wins anyways, this is the point to where a surprise winner from that crop could alter the playoff picture.

That would have the battle to stay off that 16th and final playoff spot an interesting one to watch over the next four races because I can assure you that you don’t want to go to Daytona sitting on it. The 14th and 15th placed drivers in the wildcard standings want to distance themselves from 16th badly. With Almirola’s win, that doesn’t seem very likely now either.

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